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What Is Interpersonal Communication? (And How To Improve It)

If you want to improve your interpersonal communication skills, you’ve come to the right place! We have real-life examples to enhance your skills and help you become a more engaging communicator. 

Why Is Interpersonal Communication Important?

Interpersonal communication is important because it’s how you connect with others to exchange ideas, develop relationships, influence, and give meaning to an experience. Interpersonal communication gives you the skills to offer conflict resolution, solve problems, listen actively, and make yourself understood. 

How to Improve Interpersonal Communication Skills (With Examples and Tips)

Here’s a great news: if interpersonal communication is not your strength, it is a skill you can learn!  

There are 4 main types of interpersonal communication:

  1. Verbal – Verbal communication is based on what you say and how you say it. 
  2. Nonverbal – Nonverbal communication is what you communicate with your body and your face. 
  3. Writing – Written communication is communicating through email, text, letter, or any other written form of communication.
  4. Listening – Listening is also communication. When you listen, you communicate how you feel about the other person and what they say. 

Let’s look at some examples of these 4 different types of interpersonal communication. 

Tip #1 Develop Vocal Confidence

How you communicate matters as much as the words you say. If your voice comes out high, squeaky, or soft and reticent, your verbal skills may not express confidence and strength. 

Vanessa Van Edwards recommends speaking on the out-breath. 

Vocal strength and resonance are vital when communicating with others. Imagine these scenarios:

Your boss asks you whether the current strategy is reaching predicted sales goals. Which is the better response?

  1. Yes? I think that we are moving in the right direction. All the numbers and things are adding up to be… that way… 
  2. Yes. All of the data suggests we are moving in the right direction. I currently have no concerns. 

Answer B communicates competence, and confidence, with a clear response. What went wrong in answer A? When your voice goes up at the end of a sentence, it can sound like a question. This is a fast way to appear incompetent and unsure of yourself. Another culprit that can sabotage your communication is letting sentences trail off.

If you’re in a situation where you aren’t sure, you could always try a response that looks like this:

  1. At the moment, the data is inconclusive. Can I get back to you on that? 

Instead of hedging around something you’re unsure of, confidently delay your answer. 

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Tip #2 Practice Your Negotiation Skills (Verbal Communication)

Negotiation isn’t just for high-profile businesses and politicians; negotiating is something people do daily. Negotiating involves using communication to come to a reasonable compromise with another person, all while avoiding conflict. Clearly, negotiation is a vital life skill and one that you use daily. 

Examples of everyday life negotiations:

  • Choosing where to go to lunch with friends
  • Whether to go for a run or stay in bed another 30 minutes
  • Extending the deadline on a work project
  • The curfew for your teen 

Pro-Tip: Practice your negotiation skills in low-stakes situations and request feedback from friends and family. Assessing your negotiation skills will help you know what to improve and where your strengths lie.

As you practice your negotiation skills, don’t be afraid to speak up but keep your tone calm and stable. Tone, volume, and speed are all critical to effective verbal communication. 

Tip #3 Use Self-Awareness to Communicate Who You Are (Nonverbal Communication)  

What are your nonverbal habits? Princess Diana used the chin tuck, a nonverbal cue that became a part of her brand and contributed to how we perceived her and even our emotional response to her. 

Like Princess Diana, you may do things that people identify as synonymous with you. These nonverbals shape your interpersonal communication if you always slouch in meetings, regularly touch your nose when you’re nervous, cover your mouth when you laugh, or smirk when you disagree. 

Nonverbals can damage how others see you; clearly, you don’t want to be perceived as apathetic and lazy (slouching in meetings) or arrogant and condescending (smirking when you disagree). 

Pro Tip: Develop self-awareness (intrapersonal communication) by exploring what emotions you feel when you communicate a negative nonverbal. Look for the cause of those emotions, and then strengthen your interpersonal communication by shifting your responses to your environment. 

For example, think about why you’re slouching in meetings. It could be because:

  • You feel anxious in a group setting.
  • You dislike the person leading the meeting.
  • There are so many meetings you feel like you can’t manage your workload. 

There are solutions to each of these situations, but your nonverbal communication of slouching is not one of them. Instead, it’s counterproductive. 

Action Steps: Ask yourself these questions.

  1. What is one nonverbal that communicates a negative message to other people about me? 
  2. What do I feel when I use that nonverbal cue? Can I be assertive and address the underlying problem in some way?
  3. What is one nonverbal that communicates a positive message to others? Can I use that to replace other unhelpful nonverbal cues? 

Tip #4 Make Connections With Eye Contact (Nonverbal Communication)

Whether gazing into your child’s eyes to build healthy attachment or mutual gazing with someone you’re attracted to, eye contact can strengthen your charisma and connection with others. It’s also a great indicator of whether someone is interested in you. 

Use this skill carefully—you wouldn’t want your coworker or potential client to think you’re sustaining eye contact because you’re interested! 

Pro Tip: Make eye contact at least 30% of the time, but avoid going over 60-70%

Examples of good eye contact:

  • Hold eye contact with your boss for 4-5 seconds to signify you are listening. When you look away, do so to take notes. Nodding is also a comfortable way to look away; you can either look down, up, or to the side as you nod. 
  • When your partner is talking, lean forward, and nod. Hold eye contact as they speak and raise your eyebrows or smile to signify interest in what they say. If you’re in a new relationship, avoid the creeper stare. Glance to the side (avoid looking down as it makes you appear submissive or nervous) so that you’re maintaining eye contact 50% of the time while speaking and 70% of the time when listening. 
  • As a parent, maintain a lot of eye contact with your littles (especially when they are a baby), look deeply into their eyes, and mirror their facial expressions. Eye contact isn’t just about interpersonal communication; studies have found that it’s crucial to human development.  

Disclaimer: Remember to take into account cultural differences in eye contact. Studies on eye contact show that Westerners look at the face in a triangle format (eyes to mouth), and East Asians look at the center of the face. While Westerners value eye contact, other cultures may find it disrespectful or even suggestive. 

Tip #5 Do an Email Audit (Writing Communication)

We’ve all gotten an email that feels terse, rude, or even passive-aggressive. Do you know what your emails sound like? Are they long and drawn out? Short and terse? Warm and competent? 

Vanessa suggests doing an email audit to check what you are communicating digitally. 

Action Steps: 

  • Open 5 important emails you’ve sent in the last few days
  • Look at the first 10 words that you used in each email
  • Count how many warm words and how many competent words you used

Let’s look at the good, bad, and the ugly of written interpersonal communication.

Scenario 1:

Hey. I need info on cathy. Expected it from you yesterday. Check the atachmint.

Why this doesn’t work:

  • Typos and terse punctuation
  • Passive aggressive in tone
  • Not enough information included
  • No indication of what the attachment is or what response is needed

Try this instead: 

Hey [name], have you received the information on Cathy from the hiring manager? I was hoping to move forward with the hiring process, but I just heard Larry requested we change the job description. I’m not sure Cathy still meets the qualifications with this adjustment. See attached for the updated job description. I’d appreciate it if you could communicate with the hiring manager and then update me on what is happening. 

Why it works:

  • It provides context and clearly outlines what the request is
  • Offers information about what the attachment is
  • While not overly warm, this is a good step in the right direction

Pro Tip: Don’t attempt to suddenly ooze warmth in your communication if your typical communication style is abrupt. Instead, work on making minor adjustments to your interpersonal communication. Over time, slowly add warmth, and it will feel more natural. 

Scenario 2:  

Hey Don! How have you been?? I heard you had a great vacation. So jellies!! 💔💔 Did you get my last email? I know you’ve been busy, but I REALLY need your help! I’ll swing by your office later if I don’t hear from you. 

Why this doesn’t work:

  • Too many emojis and excessive punctuation
  • Slightly manipulative
  • Inconsiderate and unprofessional
  • Doesn’t communicate what the need or request is

Try this instead:

Hey Don! Glad to have you back from vacation. I know you have a lot on your plate, but I hope you can help me with information on our new client. Jessica mentioned you were their first point of contact. I want to ensure I have the complete picture before I start, and I value your perspective.

I look forward to hearing from you. I’ll be at my desk until 5 if it’s easier to talk in person. Thanks so much!  

Why it works: 

  • Polite and professional
  • Provides context and information upfront
  • Offers multiple options for a solution while keeping it concise

Tip #6 Use Verbal and Nonverbal Mirroring (Listening Communication)

One of the most powerful interpersonal skills is listening and listening well. We all crave feeling seen and heard, and you can help satisfy that need in the people you interact with. Use verbal mirroring to be even more engaging and charismatic. 

Not sure how to do this? Here are some examples:

  • Nod with someone who is nodding.
  • Lean forward when the other person leans forward.
  • Cross your legs in the same way as the person who is speaking.
  • Repeat words that the other person has used.
  • Match their cadence and tone in speech.

Mirroring is all about observing the person in front of you. Listen to what they say and how they move and simply mirror that. Mirroring often happens naturally when we attune to others, so we focus more on the person than on mimicking behaviors. 

Pro Tip: Avoid mirroring negative body language, such as physically withdrawing or looking away. 

Action Steps:

  • If you’re a restaurant server, use mirroring by repeating the order back to your customer. According to this Dutch study, tips increased by 70% when servers used mirroring. Mirroring is a simple way to help customers feel heard and understood. 
  • If you’re on a date, use the triple nod to keep the other person talking and add a little flirtation by subtly mirroring their body language. 
  • If you have a conflict, use verbal mirroring for conflict resolution (be sure to take a few minutes to cool down first). Unlike other mirroring, both of you will know that this is what you’re doing. It’s active and intentional so that you both feel heard. For example, you tell your partner:

“I feel hurt that you didn’t buy the coffee I asked for. It feels like you don’t listen to me.” 

Then, they can respond by saying, “You feel hurt because it feels like I don’t listen to you?” 

When one person feels heard, you switch roles, and they share their feelings as well, 

“When you ask me to pick up groceries last minute, I feel frustrated and angry. Then I don’t think about what I’m buying. I need time to plan for things, and I don’t feel you understand that about me.”

Then you mirror back what they have said. “So you feel frustrated and angry because I don’t give you time to plan for things, and you feel like I should know this is one of your needs?” 

 The goal isn’t getting your point across. Instead, it’s listening to the other person and hearing them. 

Tip #7 Use Your Face (Listening Communication)

When listening to someone, be deeply engaged! The simple act of flexing your eyelids signals that you are actively engaged in the conversation. 

But don’t stop with just one nonverbal cue; your face can communicate much when you’re listening. 

Pro Tip: Have you noticed how flat facial expressions can be on video calls (especially in groups!)? Set yourself apart by showing facial expressions that demonstrate active listening.

Use these tips to increase your listening skills:

  • Raise your eyebrows when you’re surprised by a fact or have heard some unexpected information.
  • Open your mouth in shock when your friend tells you something that makes them indignant.
  • Nod three times to show you want to hear more from the speaker. 
  • Avoid pressing your lips together (which could signify displeasure) when you need to listen without judgment.
  • Tilt your head to indicate you’re listening. 

Suffer from resting bitch face (RBF)? Here’s the science behind it and how to fix RBF forever

What Is the Difference between Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Communication?

Interpersonal communication is how you interact with others, while intrapersonal communication is how you interact with yourself. 

Quick Facts on Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication includes oral, written, and nonverbal communication and listening. 

Categories of Interpersonal Communication:

  • Between two people
  • In small groups
  • Public speaking

For example, you receive a phone call from your mom who wants to know if you’ve been taking care of yourself and why she hasn’t heard from you. 

You use your interpersonal communication skills to reassure her with a soothing voice that you’re just fine and your work project has kept you too busy to think about anything else. 

You cheerfully set a date to have lunch together after you’ve completed your work project. 

How Intrapersonal Communication is Different from Interpersonal Communication 

Intrapersonal communication includes three main components.

  1. Self-awareness. This is how you see yourself, and it shapes your beliefs, values, and mindset.
  2. Perception. Your perception of others filters down from your self-concept.
  3. Expectations. This includes the expectations you have for yourself and those around you. 

Categories of Intrapersonal Communication 

  • Between yourself
  • Self-talk & self-analysis
  • With books, audio, diaries

Using the example above, intrapersonal communication would include how you respond internally to the phone call from your mom. 

Do you feel confident in yourself and your abilities, or does her phone call annoy you because you doubt yourself and feel like others doubt your competence too? 

These feelings have to do with your self-awareness, how you perceive others, and the expectations you have for yourself. 

Books About Interpersonal Communication

  1. Captivate
Captivate: The Science of Succeeding of People by Vanessa van Edwards

Succeed with People

Master the laws of human behavior and get along with anyone. Increase your influence, impact, and success.

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  1. Cues

Unlock the Secrets of Charisma

Control and leverage the tiny signals you’re sending – from your stance and facial expressions to your word choice and vocal tone – to improve your personal and professional relationships.

  1. That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks a Relationship, by Deborah Tannen.
Book cover of That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks a Relationship, by Deborah Tannen.

A classic book on interpersonal communication, Deborah Tannen explores how to overcome miscommunication and understand what people are trying to communicate. 

Key Takeaways for Interpersonal Communication

  • Interpersonal communication is a vital skill that builds connection and paves the way for career and relationship success. 
  • It is possible to learn interpersonal communication skills.
  • Interpersonal communication includes nonverbals, verbals, writing, and listening.
  • Developing vocal confidence and negotiation skills will increase your verbal assertiveness.
  • Use nonverbal communication to communicate who you are and connect with others.
  • Check your writing to see how much warmth and competence you are communicating.
  • Listen well by mirroring others and using facial expressions. 

Keep building your interpersonal communication skills with our 10 Interpersonal Intelligence Skills to Master guide.

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