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4 Steps To Grow Your People Skills

cristinaruth profile image Cristina Ruth Originally published at cristinaruth.com on ・6 min read

Talking with people is not easy. 6 years ago, I was immensely shy and found it hard to talk with people. Today, I give talks at conferences.

In this post, I share my history, my journey, my learnings, and outlined them to 4 steps where YOU can do it too.

Then and Now

6 years ago

  • I would rather code all day than to talk with people.
  • I focused on myself and only worked with people if I had to.
  • I pretended I was busy with my phone or something else when I found myself in an elevator with a stranger.
  • I clammed up when speaking in front of a lot of people.

Today

  • I actually like talking to people. In fact, I start feeling sad if I spend too many days coding by myself.
  • I focus on others and continually seek out new people even if I don't have to work with them.
  • I say hi and chat about the weather, or what's currently happening, with a stranger in an elevator. I also smile and say hi to people I "meet" in the hallways.
  • I can talk comfortably in front of a lot of people. I still get nervous, but it's way easier now.

What Happened?

The first couple of years, I think it was mainly due to increased job responsibilities -- becoming more of a lead/senior dev. As part of that, I had to interact and talk with people a lot more. I had to clarify requirements, ask questions, set expectations, coordinate with testers, etc.

Over the years, I learned to "banter" and "small talk" through trials and errors and practice -- lots of practice.

Then, a few years ago, I read a couple of books (mentioned below) that radically changed my view from me to you -- and genuinely caring for others, their needs and listening.

It was hard but after reading those books, I actively tried doing things that I was super uncomfortable about -- like...

  • Saying hi to complete strangers
  • Speaking in front of people
  • Making small talk
  • Finding topics to talk about, and
  • Keeping conversations going

There were a LOT of cringy and mortifying moments like...

OMG. That did NOT go well. So embarrassing!

But despite those, I still kept on trying. And trying. And trying. And telling myself:

OK. That was not good, but let's focus on what YOU can learn from this and learn what NOT to do next so we can improve!

And somehow, suddenly, I realized that I can talk with people better and I can talk in front of people better. It's easier! Note the er. It's still hard, but it's not as gut-wrenching as I found it before.

How You Can Do It Too

Note: This section does not contain affiliate links.

1. Read the Book "How to Win Friends and Influence People"

How to Win Friends and Influence People

This book helped me focus on others instead of myself, and oddly enough, by focusing on others, I have actually benefitted more by forming more genuine connections and had a huge part in earning me a promotion.

If you find yourself struggling to talk with people like I described above, give this book a shot and see what kind of learnings you can take from it. Check your local library if they have a copy. Take notes as you read. Make a cheat sheet for your reference for your daily life.

2. Read the Book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

I honestly thought this was a productivity book. Little did I know that it contained lots and lots of life lessons within. One of the biggest lessons I took from this book was:

Seek first to understand, than to be understood.

This is huge when talking with people, especially conflicts, which is inevitable in any relationship, personal or professional.

This book enhanced the learnings I got from How to Win Friends and Influence People, and taught me more about relationships, both personal and professional, as well as teaching me how to determine what I really want and then take actions on those wants/goals.

If you'd like to further improve your relationships, as well as learn how to set your goals and take action, check your local library and see if they have a copy. Take notes. Make a cheat sheet!

3. Apply Your Learnings

Keep them small -- one thing you can do for that day. And then make sure to celebrate that you tried! No matter the result -- whether you succeeded or not. Be kind to yourself, and help yourself through this. Change is hard. But it only will happen through persistence despite hard times. Learn from your mistakes and you will eventually succeed!

Some small things I tried that you can try too:

  • Say hi to a stranger.
  • Remembering to ask a person who asked how I was - how are YOU?
  • Remembering to listen to the other person I'm talking to. Instead of thinking and thinking on what I am going to say next.
  • Strike up a conversation with a random stranger.

A tip I read somewhere I found really helpful when talking with random strangers is to comment on something you both are experiencing OR having experienced. This is why the weather is such a common small talk topic! We all are experiencing the same weather when we're in the same physical space. A similar conversation starter is asking how their conference experience is so far (if you're attending a conference).

4. Go Bigger

When you've done the small things above consistently to the point that you got better, you'll just randomly realize that you are better at interacting with people. It's just a bit easier than it was before.

Keep challenging yourself at this point. Keep practicing. Go bigger.

Some big things I tried that you can try too:

  • Submitted and presented talks for conferences.
  • At conferences, sat at tables where complete strangers were sitting AND talked with them.
  • Joined in in-progress conversations where people were already talking.

This is definitely scarier. I did my first big conference talk in September this year, and I was nervous! It's very different being up in front of a bunch of people rather than just talking in-person with 1 or a few people. My instinct was to just quit and stop because it would be easier to do that.

But if I had done that, I would not have been able to give my talk. I would've not been able to grow.

My talk went fine -- I felt really awkward -- but I had chosen a topic I knew by heart and so, talking about it, the words just came flowing out of my mouth. It was easy to talk about it because I knew the topic so well.

And I celebrated that I did it. That I tried it.

It is so important to celebrate our small wins, and celebrate the fact that we just tried it. You can do it too!

Summary

I'm still not perfect in talking with people and I will never be and that is perfectly okay.

You will never be either and that is also perfectly okay! Just keep learning, trying, practicing and celebrate your small wins. What matters is that you are better than how you were before.

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cristinaruth profile

Cristina Ruth

@cristinaruth

Senior Software Engineer and Tech Lead. I write about tips & thoughts on tech & life, and other random stuff.

Discussion

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Yes! All three books mentioned are must-reads. How to Win Friends and Influence People has been instrumental in who I am today. I drop-ship it to any unfortunate friend who gets me talking about it. I'm so glad that you are sharing this, Cristina!

Another related book that I am constantly recommending is The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.

I'm still not perfect in talking with people and I will never be and that is perfectly okay.

You have made more effort by reading those three books than most of the people I've met. That is extremely impressive and I'm certain that you will see the compounding benefits of the lessons you learned for years to come. I didn't used to be good at this of stuff, but as I learned and applied that learning, I started to see others' redefine my identity. My sister would say, "I wish I was a people person like you." or my girlfriend would say, "You always know how to get people talking and feeling comfortable." This taught me a valuable lesson: Your identity is fluid and it isn't defined by what you are good at right now.

 

Thank you for the compliments! I definitely am a different person now than years ago. I love your point about identity. Very true.

It's all driven by what we do now and we can change it!

I’ve never heard of that book you mentioned - thank you for the recommendation - will check it out! 😊

 

I've been on a similar journey myself. Learning to talk to strangers is not easy -- it means undoing years of conditioning. My first steps were to ask supermarket staff for help finding items. People who are literally paid to help ... and I still felt nervous at first.

What matters is that you are better than how you were before

So true. Even trying to improve can be a massive improvement in and of itself. From that point it's just a matter of time (and a bit of effort, admittedly).

Good work on the talk. I haven't taken the plunge on that one yet.

 

Exactly! I remember being anxious just calling into a customer service line. It's really hard work and takes a lot of time, but as you said, the act of trying already starts off your improvement.

 

Yes! Your words are very inspiring Cristina :) I'm so glad that you are sharing this, Cristina!

 

I'm so glad you find it inspiring! :)