Why Relationships Require Harder Skills


Do you ever notice people’s relationship skills? How well they talk, listen, look, act and sound with different people? And how people respond to their behavior?

I’ve been paying more attention to others’ relationship skills since my grandmother passed away this year. Eulogies and tributes can have a certain clarifying effect on what’s most important, and it was clear at her funeral: People loved her and felt loved by her. Here’s what they said:

She didn’t criticize people.

She always spoke kindly about others.

She listened well.

She showed up.

She was friendly to strangers.

She remembered things that others cared about.

She played herself down and made others feel important.

Clearly, relationships were central to her life purpose. And she was very skilled in them.

She wasn’t perfect, and some of this came naturally to her. But I also know that she worked to develop these skills.

Not-So-Soft Skills

Skill is defined as the ability to do something well, an expertise or a particular ability. My grandmother had a particular ability—the ability to build and strengthen relationships.

Some people refer to this as “soft skill.” The problem with that is that my grandmother wasn’t soft. She was tough, thick-skinned and smart. She wasn’t easily offended, and I never saw her intimidated by someone. Perhaps if “hard skill” is technical/functional in nature, she had a particular ability in the “harder skill” of getting along with people.

I know a thing or two about those so-called “hard” technical skills. After I graduated from university, I was trained to be a computer programmer. I quickly became proficient at SQL database reporting, C+ and other proprietary application development coding language. I also learned to write formulas, macros and pivot tables in spreadsheets. It was grueling effort to learn and use these technologies.

But for the most part, it was rational. My mood did not have much effect on my coding ability. One SQL database never treated me differently than another depending on whether it liked me or looked like me. No pivot table ever triggered a negative childhood memory that made me suddenly defensive. C+ was C+. It didn’t play politics.

Were these hard skills? Without question. But, for me anyway, other skills remained harder to master. Like having a conversation about my performance with my manager. Making interesting small talk with senior leaders at our company outings. Remaining confident when older colleagues razed me for my age or inexperience. Making my ideas clear in meetings. Telling someone my opinion without arousing resentment. And influencing people on other teams to work with me.

These relationship skills were harder for me because they weren’t rational. They were emotional, personal and political. Nonetheless, they require skill. They are developed over time through self-awareness, observation, experimentation and correction.

My grandmother improved her relationship skills over time through courses, books and intentional effort. In many ways, this inspired me to continually work on my own relationship skills in similar ways. And now I also coach others on their relationship skills.

This is what I see happen when people intentionally develop their relationship skills:

Managers strengthen trust with employees, salespeople persuade customers to do business, software developers influence their business partners, executives present ideas with greater impact and teams improve their chemistry.

Not always. Because it’s really hard. These are very hard skills to master. But they are worth developing.

When others are observing me, I hope they see someone acting like my grandmother did. Whether it’s in a boardroom, locker room or dining room, I hope they find someone who cares about others and who others care about. I hope people say, “That person has a particular ability to relate with others.”

Is that important to you too? If so, how are you developing your relationships skills?

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