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Use People Skills to Sharpen Your Competitive Edge

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March/April 2002 - Volume 81, Number 2

by C. Rhoberta Shaler, Ph.D.

What is your competitive edge? Where is it found? It’s not on your balance sheet. A profit is only the evidence of a competitive edge. The edge itself is found in your relationships. To sharpen your competitive edge, you must hone your people skills.

The title business is a people business. Every business is. Certainly you have products, skills, expertise, and experience to offer, but first you need the people. There is no business without them. People are the economy. It is people you respond to and prepare for. People have needs and wants. People create competition and co-operation. People create demands and expectations, timelines and deadlines, urgencies and emergencies. People make or break a business.

Excellent people skills help build trusting relationships. These are essential to your bottom line, literally and figuratively. Whether you are relating to folks you work with, work for, or live with, the better your skills, the more likely the relationship will be productive and satisfying. Honing your skills, then, makes ultimate sense. It will save you time, energy, fear, and pain. What a bargain!

The speed of our world has increased dramatically. We have changed our sense of time and urgency. Do you remember when the mail and the telephone were the primary modes of business communication?

Fast forward! Have you ever sent an e-mail and rushed back to your computer three minutes later expecting a reply? Were you annoyed when it was not there? Would you think of waiting for a document to arrive in the mail when there is a fax machine close at hand?

We all live in an era of instant communication with a desire for instant gratification. If we blink, we’re afraid we’ll miss something. If we slow down, we’re afraid we’ll be passed. If we stop, we’re afraid we’ll be too far out of the loop to regain our place. Our radar is always on. It’s exhausting.

To live and work comfortably, we need to develop and refine our people skills. This will protect our own sanity as well as contributing to our business success.

How do you increase your business, improve workplace and client relationships, and keep your health and sanity simultaneously? Clear goals, established priorities, well-developed people skills, efficient organization, thoughtful time management, and basic integrity. Simple to say, but not always easy to do!

Here are four essential skills that will sharpen your competitive edge:

Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Your success will be in direct proportion to your clarity. Be clear. Know what you want and why you want it. Know what is important to you and why. Only then will you be able to communicate assertively and respectfully.

Assertiveness means being willing to ask for what you need and want. Assertiveness requires that you speak about yourself, your thoughts, your feelings, your needs and wants. It is a declaration of where you stand. It is not an opportunity to step on or over others. That is aggressiveness. There is a big difference!

Assertive people communicate in ways that "enable them to maintain self-respect, pursue happiness and the satisfaction of their needs while defending their rights and personal space without abusing or dominating other people." So writes Robert Bolton in his excellent book, People Skills. Aggressive people express their feelings, needs, and ideas at the expense of others. It is difficult to feel safe around aggressive people. Since they are often behaving based on fear and insecurity, they also tend to be unpredictable. Practice assertiveness.

Communicate Clearly

Communication involves two separate and distinct acts: the willingness and ability to listen, and the willingness and ability to convey your message clearly. One is more difficult than the other. Can you guess which one?

Why is it so difficult to listen well, when all we want is to be understood? We are impatient. Instead of listening when another person is speaking, we are formulating our answer, defense, or rebuttal in our heads. This precludes listening.

We are fearful. We are concerned that we will not be understood, and so we grab as much airtime for ourselves as possible. This also precludes listening well.

Robert Bolton says that "75% of oral communication is ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. Rarer still is the ability to listen for the deepest meanings in what people say." It is rare, in part, because it is scary. If I really listen to someone, I have to become more deeply involved in the relationship, if only for the length of the conversation. It’s scary too, because once I do understand the speaker, I may have to take action!

Listening requires caring. I have to want to listen. I have to be willing to ask questions that will help me better understand the speaker’s point of view.

Now, for the other side of the equation. Speakers need to choose their words carefully to clearly convey their message to the listener. They need to use language the listener understands. Both parties in a conversation must engage for communication to occur. It is a shared responsibility.

Remember too, you can say a great deal without speaking. Body language is powerful, and it can be misread. Behavior often screams. What do you communicate when you do not attend a meeting? When you do not return a phone call? Are you aware of all the messages you are sending? Do not leave something to chance that is within your control to communicate clearly.

Communication is much more than words. Communication is not one interchange but many. Listen well, and reflect back what you have heard for accuracy. No, not parroting, not even paraphrasing. It has to be done with a clear intention to understand both the words spoken and the feelings, beliefs, and values underneath those words. Take a risk. Check out the accuracy of your understanding. Then, continue to communicate.

Manage Conflict Productively

Conflict is not a four-letter word! It is simply the expression of opposing needs, drives, wishes, or demands. The challenge is how conflict is managed, or if it is managed at all.

Assertive people can manage conflict more productively than passive or aggressive folks. They clearly communicate their positions and support them with their thoughts. They contribute to the conversation rather than the fray.

Many people have had very poor experiences with conflict. It is not uncommon for conflict to be equated with disrespect. That is, of course, because of the awkward ways in which it has been handled.

The first step in managing conflict productively is to clarify the issue for yourself. Is it a conflict of emotions or feelings about something? Is it a conflict of values? Or a conflict of needs? These are very different. Conflicts of emotions are the easiest to resolve. Why? Because we create our own feelings by what we choose to perceive and think, these can be changed. I may feel very strongly about something, and you may be feeling completely the opposite. We are entitled to our feelings. Once we have explained our feelings, we can understand one another better, especially if we were really listening. We may agree to disagree. Conflicts of values or needs are more complex. They will take longer to explain, understand, and manage. If you value the relationship, be willing to take the time.

It is essential to be respectful when conflict is present. When fear rises, defensiveness and attack often rise as well. Take care to avoid piling hurt upon conflict.

Anger is an arousal in the body created by hurt, fear, and frustration. When anger flares, it is a poor time to converse. Physiologically, the angrier a person becomes the poorer his or her ability to think. Haven’t we all experienced saying something at moments of intense anger and regretted it later? That’s because as anger rises, the blood from the centers of reason and logic in the brain rushes to the body to protect the vital organs. So, in a sense, the angrier you are, the more brain-dead you become. Not a good time for a conversation!

Learn the skills of assertion. Clarify your thoughts and approach people with whom you have conflict at a quiet time, not when you are in full flight, gun loaded, and out for bear!

Engage In Team Problem Solving
Or, communicate, communicate, communicate.

Whenever challenges arise in organizations or in families, the best approach is to move towards one another. Yet, the tendency is often to move away. That’s the fear again, isn’t it? Or, the ostrich syndrome. Developing the skills of collaboration makes everyone’s jobs easier.

Take the time to define the problem carefully. Often there is a tendency to make assumptions and leap to problem solving before the problem itself is understood. Ask each team member for a statement of the issue. Discuss it fully and come to agreement about the nature of the challenge.

Know what you want the outcome or solution to accomplish. In the software industry this would be defining the requirements. What do we want to have, to feel, to be able to do as a result of this effort?

Once the problem or challenge and the desired goal is defined, choose the path to achieving the goal. Discuss it fully. What are the implications for every team member? How will this detract from other current projects? What are the priorities? Who will do what by when? Create a linear plan with input from everyone involved.

Decide on regular times to review and evaluate the progress and process. This saves time and unnecessary work. It keeps the challenge shared and maintains focus.

By honing these four essential people skills, you will feel more confident when you move into new relationships and more comfortable managing and strengthening existing ones.

Successful people and successful organizations focus on their goals, objectives, and plans. Successful relationships are the cornerstone of successful businesses. Build yours on honesty, integrity, skills, and the intention to learn. You will create lasting relationships built on trust that will lead everyone concerned to profit in every way.

C. Rhoberta Shaler is the creator of The Consociate Way: Promoting Performance and Peace in Your Workplace. She is also a motivational keynote speaker and corporate teambuilder. This article is an excerpt from her presentation during ALTA®’s 2001 Annual Convention. She can be reached at: or 877-728-6464.

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