Interpersonal Skills: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Others

Published: Dec 08, 2017
Modified: Apr 09, 2024


Our self-confidence, communication skills, and interpersonal skills at work are largely influenced by our self-talk, or the constant internal narrative we have about our experiences. Self-talk informs our perceptions of ourselves and the values and beliefs that make up our identities.

But identity-building is just one of the tasks that self-talk serves to complete. In addition to telling the story of oneself, self-talk also accounts for how we interpret everyone else’s stories. And in the same way that faulty self-talk about ourselves can sabotage our self-esteem, faulty self-talk about other people damages our perceptions of them and prevents us from developing relationships that may otherwise be meaningful and rewarding.

The impact of self-talk on interpersonal skills

Suppose that I see Dave from digital media walking down the hall. I smile and say “hi,” and he responds with an odd look. My initial thought might be, “That guy is rude.” Because of the “threat” Dave presents—in the form of socially rejecting me by not saying hello—I instinctively label and file him neatly in my mind as someone who is “dangerous to my well-being,” and therefore someone I should avoid.

In addition to keeping myself “safe” by labeling Dave as someone to avoid, I do not need to devote any more time to him than the mere seconds I just spent forming my opinion about him. Dismissing Dave in this way is a lot easier than the alternative of spending who knows how much time getting to know him.

Self-talk and relationship building

Avoiding problem people is a survival instinct that we shouldn’t ignore in situations where our survival really is at risk. But we should think twice about applying safe-and-easy “survival thinking” at work, lest we chase away opportunities to develop good relationships with co-workers.

If I give it a little more thought, I can attribute Dave’s behavior to any number of things that are more benign. Maybe he was lost in thought and simply didn’t hear me, or maybe he didn’t intend to look at me in an odd way at all. Then again, maybe the look was deliberate, but merely an attempt to connect with me on some visceral level as a show of camaraderie and respect. I think of the interesting looks I’ve exchanged with family and friends when we each just knew what the other was thinking. Could it be that Dave “gets me” in a similar way?

Being able to come up with these other interpretations of Dave’s body language casts doubt on the 100% reliability of my knee-jerk reaction to label him “rude.”

Using self-talk to support interpersonal skills

When we think of what it means to have good interpersonal skills, we tend to think about our own body language and choice of words—the importance of projecting the right image to make a good impression on others. But being a good communicator is about more than making a good impression. It is also about being able to develop an impression of someone else without mentally dissecting that person at the slightest hint of a perceived offense.

Dismissing a person out of hand and refusing to engage are opposites of good communication, which involves keeping a conversation going rather than ending it abruptly. To this end, skilled communicators know to monitor the stories they tell themselves about others. They show the same consideration in their thinking about others that they would want shown to them, and they don’t assume the worst about someone just because it’s the easiest thing to do.