Interpersonal Communication Skills: More Important Than Hard Skills

Posted by Bridget Beirne
July 31, 2015

by Lei Han

We're pleased to bring you another guest post! About today's guest blogger: Lei Han is a Stanford Engineer and a Wharton MBA with over 15 years of business experience. She is the founder of , enjoys writing about career development and is passionate in helping professionals work smart and achieve success. You can follow her on Twitter @bemycareercoach. Thanks, Lei!

Have you ever wondered why having the best answer to a business problem sometimes makes no impact at all? In school, we were always incentivized to give the best answer – the best answer leads to good grades, which lead to job offers. So, naturally I brought that mentality to work. I would work tirelessly to get the perfect, best answer, but was often disappointed when nobody seemed to interested in hearing it.

After five years, I’ve learned that the best answer is not as good as a practical answer that has executive buy-in and champions who are willing to implement the solution.  

This is just one example of why interpersonal communication skills are more important than hard skills.  I think of hard skills as what it takes to develop the perfect solution to a business issue.  I define interpersonal skills as our ability to build relationships with others, to effectively understand their circumstances, communicate our proposed solution based on their business reality, and persuade them to take action.   Only when we combine soft skills, like interpersonal skills, with our hard skills can we become more effective in business.

Here is another example of why interpersonal communication skills are more important than hard skills: I went to the interpersonal-communication-skillsdentist yesterday to do a routine cleaning. I’m not particularly scared of dentists, but I’m not fond of the experience either. It’s just something to get done.

I was given a new dentist — Dr. Vo — but at the same office. As soon as she started examining me, she started “scolding” me for waiting too long for a cleaning (it’s been a year) and not flossing enough, as I had gum bleedings and sensitivity in some of my teeth. It made me tense, but I said nothing.

Then she told me that I may have the beginnings of cavities on three teeth (no actual cavities yet), and she started scolding me again for waiting too long to get a cleaning. After “scolding” me three times, I asked her to stop repeating herself. After the cleaning, I promptly told the front desk to always give me my old dentist — Dr. Sood — for future appointments, even if I have to wait longer to get an appointment.

My experience there is what prompted me to write this article. Was my cleaning well done this time? Yes. Did Dr. Vo give me the best diagnosis? Probably. Dr. Vo had all the hard skill to give me her best answer, but I left with a “bad taste” in my mouth because of her interpersonal skills. Nobody wants to feel stupid or wrong during a business transaction, even if they were.

The business world is not too different.  People and companies value good customer experience, practical solutions, and tactful communication methods. We may think that business decisions are made mainly based on logic, but that would be a naive assumption. Here are three more examples about interpersonal skills which illustrate their importance in business:

  • Major deals are signed on golf courses – why?  Interpersonal skills were used to build close relationships (through a common interest, like golf), and the trust built using these interpersonal skills leads to signed deals.

  • All logical factors being equal (like price, convenience, delivery time, etc.), people usually choose the vendor with groups that they’ve had good experiences with. Sometimes,  people will even choose a higher price with their current vendor because they value the existing experience, rather than wanting to risk having a bad experience with a new, lower priced one.

  • A mediocre solution that has executive buy-in will get implemented over a more perfect solution created in a black box.  This is the lesson I learned in consulting: It’s great to be smart (hard skills), but if I don’t have the interpersonal skills to understand my clients, what’s practical to implement in the company’s current circumstances, and how to best persuade them to take action, I will not be able to make any impact.

These examples all teach an important lesson, especially for those with exceptional hard skills, like engineers, programmers, accountants, scientists, etc.  Many struggle to transition from these roles to management, because of either:

1) Lack of understanding regarding the importance of soft skills, like interpersonal skills and communication skills, or

2) They don’t know how to develop these skills.

One thing is sure — if you want to reach senior management level in any business, you have to develop relationships with your team, peers, clients and vendors, and you’ll need interpersonal skills to do that.

How do you feel about the question of hard vs. soft skills? Let us know in the comments below!


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