Interpersonal Skills for Leadership

In order to feel good about a person, people have to feel good with that person. Leaders encourage others to enjoy interacting with them. They smile, laugh with those around them, and interact positively with people, even when disagreeing with what they say.

To accomplish these attitudes and behaviors, leaders develop interpersonal skills on a foundation of assertiveness. Assertiveness refers to the relaxed confidence one displays in discussions or productive conflicts. On the one hand, people see a passive person as being more interested in getting along than in getting to an optimal solution. On the other, they see an aggressive person as more interested in being right or dominant than in collaboratively discovering the truth or best option. But people trust an assertive person. They appreciate when someone at the table values their perspectives and evaluates fairly, openly, and appreciatively.

Sure, particularly after years of practice, stress-management skills help leaders maintain an assertive disposition in potentially frustrating situations, but too many people blindly reduce assertiveness to stress management. Yes, stress management correlates with assertiveness, but no, stress management does not cause it. In fact, more often than not, the reverse is true. Certain strategies and techniques for assertive behaviors can improve situational stress management.

For instance, prospective leaders can connect their positions with the needs of others. By speaking on behalf of others’ needs instead of their own, they can muster greater resolve to reach the best option. This strategy also prevents a counterpart from dismissing their position as being selfish. And both facets of this strategy reduce situational stress.

Additionally, by mentally reframing a meeting or negotiation into a collaboration, prospective leaders can shift from a hierarchical or adversarial mindset to a flat organizational structure with common goals. This strategy enables people to speak more comfortably—free from competition, unwarranted power struggles, and of course, needless stress. Instead of a meeting or negotiation with VIP’s, the conversation becomes a brainstorming session between two or more peers. Then the prospective leader can solicit buy-in by ensuring everyone has a voice, role, and stake, simply by appreciating differences and emphasizing commonalities in pursuit of co-authorship.

Sounds great—but how do we do that?

To reframe an event, prospective leaders can socialize prior to discussion or negotiation, thereby mentally separating ideas from people or judgments from identities. Simply put, we have to recognize people for who they are—as human beings, not positions of authority or antagonism—before we can separate them from what we or they are trying to accomplish. That mental separation between the people at the table and the ideas or goals at stake allows people to assert, “I disagree,” without thinking negatively of the person who articulated the idea or quivering under the fear of judgment.

Note that this strategy also helps others at the table disentangle prospective leaders from their ideas. In other words, socializing works both as a method for achieving assertiveness and as a means for promoting it.

As another strategy for assertiveness, prospective leaders can actively broaden their perspectives in preparation to accept alternatives. This strategy requires they dedicate considerable effort to knowing the principles and goals behind their requests. Rarely do any of us want specifically what we ask for. Far more likely, we want what we presume our requests can achieve. Do we want the pay raise, or do we want the value of that raise, in time or purchasing power or even status—as we alternatively might achieve through more professional-development travel or vacation days, perks like a company car or first-class upgrades, or a new title? Such knowledge enables us to relinquish rigid demands and collaboratively explore alternatives with the people at the table.

When entertaining alternatives, great leaders discuss facts and opinions from multiple points of view, including their counterparts’, to model and encourage objective thinking. Rather than argue a side, they generate scenarios, openly explore other people’s suggestions by focusing on how to before why not, and whenever possible, refer to objective measures for their evaluations. In addition to displaying and encouraging objective thinking, a prospective leader who adopts this strategy exhibits openness and adaptability, two leadership dispositions people appreciate, particularly amidst social calls for transparency and within a tumultuous economy.

Great leaders also go out of their way to truly understand what others need and want. Instead of arguing points of disagreement, they actively listen for statements they can support. Many use questions and conversational cues like smiling or nodding to keep a counterpart talking about topics they can support. When a counterpart steers the conversation in unproductive or, worse, disadvantageous directions, astute leaders interrupt and redirect—for instance, by saying, “You have some interesting ideas. But I want to better understand this other idea you mentioned.” Then, at the end of the meeting or in follow-up email, if not periodically during the meeting, they can summarize those points of agreement in order to ensure everyone is on the same page and to remind everyone of what that same page is. Simply practicing these listening skills and behaviors can build a person’s reputation for working well with others and seeking consensus.

Far more important than steering the conversation, great leaders go out of their way to identify the principles and goals behind a counterpart’s requests or demands. That knowledge enables them to say “no” to the demand—but “yes” to satisfying the principles or goals in some other capacity. When leaders truly comprehend a counterpart’s values, needs, concerns, and goals, they can significantly impact if not direct the terms of agreement—especially if they frame the options in value-laden language the counterpart can appreciate.

Comprehending everyone’s principles and goals can empower a person not only to cultivate buy-in while promoting objective exploration of alternatives, but also to say “no” to a specific request without undermining the collaboration. However, some people have trouble determining those motives or discerning where or how to draw the line on entertaining demands. As a stop gap, many leaders adopt the “no, but, if” technique. This simple tactic involves firmly saying “no” to the request or demand, followed by “but,” with a condition that enables a reasonable alternative: “No, my department can’t pay for food, but if your department can cover the catering, I can do all the planning, coordinating, and facilitating.” This method helps a prospective leader assert boundaries without threatening the collaboration or relationship.

But understanding everyone’s principles and goals will take a prospective leader much farther. To assist with this process, prospective leaders can borrow from Neil Rackham’s unfortunately-named SPIN approach. SPIN thankfully does not refer to spinning other people’s words, but rather stands for Situation questions, Problem questions, Implication questions, and Need-payoff questions. Situation questions are those that help people understand who everyone at the table is—including their roles and backgrounds, skills, or resources—and the context of their meeting, with relevant data such as performance indicators or benchmarks. Prospective leaders should relegate situation questions to the pre-meeting research process as much as possible. Situation questions enable a prospective leader to comprehend at least cursorily who has the vantage points, skills, or resources to identify, evaluate, or act on relevant problems or opportunities. Moreover, key words on a stakeholder’s LinkedIn page or in a blog post might cue a prospective leader into that person’s values.

The rest of SPIN assists with collaborative exploration. Problem questions are those whose answers reveal issues that stakeholders at the table, or their associates, can address. Problem questions would help everyone speculate, for instance, what obstacles prevent a preferred venue from becoming available for high-profile fundraiser, or why department heads are unwilling to share information or otherwise accommodate each other’s needs. Next, implication questions unravel the extent to which such uncovered issues impact human or other resources, efficiency, operating costs, opportunity costs, etc. Implication questions peek people’s interests by drawing attention to the stakes. Meanwhile, need-payoff questions encourage people to explore what-if scenarios and their impact on the problem. Based on the above examples, here are a couple of need-payoff questions: “If turnaround time is the only obstacle to our using the venue, how might extra manpower affect that turnaround time, and how skilled would that labor have to be? Could we organize the extra manpower to expedite the breakdown and setup process?”; “If department heads were to develop institutional thinking, not just departmental thinking, would they still withhold information from each other that could benefit institutional goals? Can we design a retreat or a leadership-development program that fosters institutional thinking?” Rackham emphasizes the importance of not only asking such questions, but also encouraging others at the table to fully articulate the answers. Their generating both their own problems and solutions fosters their psychological investment in the process.

Rackham developed SPIN as a research-based sales technique, and in his examples, the other stakeholders are professional purchasers or others similarly involved in relationship-building, long-term, and large sales. The approach posits the salesperson in the position of facilitator and the prospective client in the role of brainstormer and problem-solver in order to build the client’s active participation. Also, because the prospective client generates the problems and solutions, the client simultaneously would construct a prepared argument for soliciting additional approvals or funding sources via conversations where the salesperson can’t be present. In other words, the method breeds buy-in, but equally importantly, it cultivates articulate champions for the cause.

All leaders depend on buy-in and champions for their causes. Rackham’s SPIN approach enables prospective leaders to bring others into the problem-solving or change process in ways that can lead to sustainable contributions.

Through online research, conversations with shared connections, or repeated meetings, a future leader can learn about motivations, values, and both explicit and implicit goals of stakeholders at the table, and then use the meeting to practice, develop, and demonstrate interpersonal skills that benefit both career and project goals.

Thus far, we have discussed interpersonal skills in terms of assertiveness. By connecting their positions with the needs of others and reframing meetings or negotiations into collaborations, prospective leaders can develop greater resolve to pursue truth or the best option, lower stress, and build a social identity of trustworthiness. By socializing prior to discussion and learning the principles and goals behind their own and others’ requests, they also can disentangle everyone’s perceptions of each other from proposed and potentially contentious ideas, transform debates into brainstorming sessions, and help everyone generate alternatives. And by asking questions that encourage everyone else at the table to articulate problems and solutions, prospective leaders can simultaneously cultivate buy-in and inspire champions for the cause.

Assertiveness provides the foundation for interpersonal skills, but there are plenty of additional interpersonal skills to develop. For instance, prospective leaders can practice attributing even the ideas they personally devise to others in the room or their constituencies, whenever possible. In a world where colleagues fight for credit and recognition, this approach seems counterintuitive, if not dangerous. However, great leaders know not only that buy-in outweighs credit, but also that their early articulation of an idea does not mean they were the first to think of it.

When senior colleagues recognize they can defer authority without forfeiting recognition, they not only desire to work more with such a trustworthy person, but also are willing to provide opportunities that increase the person’s experience and visibility. On the one hand, they merely are delegating responsibilities in order to lighten their loads. On the other, they’re consciously or unconsciously positioning that person for upward mobility. By publically aligning a person with even informal authority, senior colleagues encourage others to associate that person with authority. So long as the person acquires and demonstrates the requisite skills, everyone will view the person as a perfect fit for formal leadership.

Prospective leaders also can practice involving every stakeholder in discussions. Most great leaders recognize that relying solely on vocal contributors can cause misconceptions. First of all, many people silently process new knowledge and require someone else to actively solicit their ideas. Second of all, some people quietly nod even when they disagree. Great leaders encourage and welcome objections to broaden awareness and understanding, as well as to facilitate cathartic articulations that open discussions which can assuage fears. Agreements without clearly engaged stakeholder ownership can devolve into poorly debated ideas with insufficient follow-through.

Involving every stakeholder in a discussion is not always easy. Some people do not want to contribute. When faced with stubborn silence, prospective leaders can cater SPIN questions to those who need prodding and repeatedly ask for elaboration.

Even once articulated, others’ statements can require management. Some people contribute in inarticulate, negative, or excessively personal ways. Prospective leaders can paraphrase poorly articulated ideas to confirm understanding or rephrase negative or excessively personalized statements into positive or relatable terms.

Both prodding and rephrasing are tricky. Note that a skilled leader prods and rephrases not to interrogate, but rather to include and motivate. To avoid a persecutory countenance, prospective leaders can practice these skills with sincere smiles and a caring attitude and perhaps preface the SPIN questions with an introductory statement like, “You look like you have an idea or a concern.” After acquiring people’s ideas, prospective leaders can search for opportunities to openly recognize, praise, and incorporate those contributions in order to promote an inclusive environment and encourage buy-in.

Regardless of what happens in a meeting or an interpersonal exchange, great leaders focus on people’s strengths, never inadequacies, and compliment others’ strengths regularly, both publicly and privately. Great leaders treat all people as their people and every communication with them as special. A prospective leader who develops these skills, attitudes, and behaviors will rise quickly in any organization.


Fisher, Roger; and Shapiro, Daniel. (2005). Using Emotions as You Negotiate. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Fisher, Roger; and Ury, William. (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Rackham, Neil. (2014). SPIN Selling: Situation Problem Implication Need-Payoff. [Unabridged] [Audible Audio Edition] McGraw-Hill Education. Retrieved from

Sandberg, Sheryl. (2014). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Schonk, Katherine, Ed. Training Women to Be Leaders: Negotiation Skills for Success; Negotiation Skills Special Report 8. Boston, MA: Harvard University. Retrieved from

Wheeler, Michael. (2013). How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.