Going from phony to genuine “people skills”

Periodically, I check out special day, week and month designations for the calendar year. They are fun, but can be somewhat odd. For instance, one of June’s claims to fame is that it’s “International People Skills Month.” Why the “international” tag? Because only a true people person would concern him/herself with getting along with culturally-different folk?

What is a “people person” besides a self-description during a job interview to reinforce to interviewers that you are more interested in working with people than with data or things? It’s one of those phrases that gets thrown out often and passed around like a cheap date, but nobody really spends time deconstructing it. I visited the Realityworks blog for answers.

According to Realityworks, people skills are, “A set of skills enabling a person to get along with others, to communicate ideas effectively, to resolve conflict, and to achieve personal or business goals.” In other words, the ability to speak well, mediate and schmooze are the broader categories of attributes needed to work well with people.

If I were a contributor to Realityworks, I would add a few more people skills of my own; tongue-biting (aka butt-kissing, or the ability to say something nice while thinking something completely different), turning the other cheek (in Jesus-speak, practicing grace and mercy, but practically speaking, it means giving multiple, underserved second chances to people who may have been or are still being complete jerks) and Tefloning (letting negative comments and behavior roll off instead of absorbently taking them personally).

But nobody asked me, probably because my list of people skills were not hones from a textbook or in a classroom setting. Rather, they were learned through surviving a childhood filled with the competing demands of parents, teachers, coaches, 4-H leaders, music instructors and farming, and an early adulthood decade of butt-kissing waitressing jobs, where my so-called “people skills” paid both the lowly daily bills and the higher education tuition. Those activities developed REAL people skills.

Some of the customer service/people skill techniques I have seen err either in the direction of “the customer is always right and has the right to treat a business or employee like a wet dishrag” or the overly-gratuitous behavior I coined “customer-servicing,” where all the people skills are overly- scripted.

When I call life insurance companies to follow up on death benefits, the people answering the phones are trained to parrot, “First, let me say I am very sorry for your loss.” This is often conveyed in an insincere, robotic fashion that makes it not just unheart-warming, but borderline offensive. As if some claims processor in Timbuktu truly cares about our situation here! But occasionally, a claims processor goes off script and says something like, “Wow, he died pretty young, that’s got to be extra tough on the family. I’ll do my best to speed things up.” Thank you! At the end of the day, such genuineness turns out to be the best people skill. You can’t fake it.

Not long ago, I was speaking with a family that was navigating end of life health issues with a family member. In addition to the exhaustive caregiving and emotional duress, they were regularly having to deal with a healthcare professional whom they said regarded her work as “just a job.” She may have said all of the right things, but they rang hollow. People pick up on the difference.

I wish more people would look you straight in the eye and say, “Just like you, I’m only human. I’ll try my best to do right by you, but sometimes I fall short or come up against major obstacles. But we’ll work together and get it figured out.” Amen.

At Denny Spooner’s funeral, his family distributed nice picture keepsakes commemorating his life. A Souza verse on the back began, “For a long time to me it seemed that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

Good people skills mean helping others overcome the obstacles.



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