In business as much as in life, people skills trump expertise

By Sam Allman

Expertise matters. You have spent countless hours working to acquire it. Whether you are an architect, designer, business owner or manager, the information and knowledge you have attained gives you power. It was the great scientist Francis Bacon who said, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge opens the mind, expands our alternatives and helps us discover more effective ways of doing, thinking and seeing. Viewing a problem from multiple perspectives opens the mind for creativity and problem solving. After all, independent will and imagination are two of those human endowments that separate us from all other species.

In addition, the knowledge you have acquired differentiates you from others. Differentiation is a critical strategy of life. Marketing gurus Jack Trout and Seth Godin basically tell us that we should “differentiate or die.” Although fitting in is important, standing out is what will give us leverage in life and in our careers. Standing out will get us hired and paid more than others. The fewer people who have the knowledge we have, who can do what we do, the more in demand we will be. That demand allows us to charge more for our services. It’s the basic law of economics, the law of supply and demand. Ask any world-class athlete, musician or scholar.

The problem, whether you are talking about world-class skills or knowledge, is that acquiring expertise is not easy. It takes time. Knowledge is not enough; it also requires gaining experience. But you have made the journey and you have paid your dues. You now stand out; you are differentiated from others. You have earned the title of expert in your field. It is cause to celebrate. It has been worth it. Now you are ready to truly make an impact in your field, make more money, and be that distinguished expert whom people will honor, consult and listen to as your words of expertise roll from your mouth. 

Beware: expertise may set you apart and make you more money, but it will not get you honored or liked. We see it often, experts (or celebrities) so caught up in their uniqueness that they put themselves above others. “Do you know who I am?” Expert power corrupts. These people get caught up in the disease of ego, and it makes everyone sick but them. Is your expertise elevating you in your mind over others? Do you condescend or put yourself above others for what they don’t know and what you do? Do you use industry jargon and arrogance to prove how smart you are? How do you make others feel when they are in your presence? 

Expertise can puff you up and make you care less how others feel about you. “I don’t care whether they like me or not, I just want them to respect me.” Is it important to be respected? Absolutely. However, I believe it is more important to be liked. If you are not liked, others may sabotage you, spread rumors or steal from you. Your colleagues, clients, employees, children and spouse can make your life miserable and damage your career if you only want respect. I remember vividly a young teenager coming to me at the end of a speech saying, “I wish my father understood this concept. I respect him, but I don’t like him. He wonders why I don’t want to be around him.”

The fact is that people skills always trump expertise. If you want to extend the mileage, in terms of the money, accolades and honor you receive because of your expertise, you must complement your expertise with people skills. People skills complete expertise, and expertise also enhances people skills—people will not listen unless they think that you have something meaningful to say. 

You will be more honored by the type of person you become rather than by the information you know. Working on yourself is as important as working on your skills and your expertise. The paradox is that when you focus on others and become concerned more about them than about yourself, you actually enhance yourself in the eyes of others. The effect of good people skills is how you make people feel when you interact with them. Do you make them feel better or worse for having been in your presence? Are you good at making connections, building relationships or creating rapport with others? 

When considering people skills; it starts with the ability to create rapport. Rapport is defined as a relationship of mutual trust and affinity. That definition gives us clues on the skills that are needed. Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Mutual trust is difficult to build if you are a deceitful person. Some people have difficulty being honest. Initial rapport is easy, but maintaining it takes honesty and integrity. It is a long-term proposition. As the saying goes, “Trust takes years to build, only seconds to destroy.” 

So what breeds trust? Since habit rules us, it starts by creating habits that build trust. Tell the truth and don’t be deceitful; be consistent, walk your talk and be true to your values; take responsibility and take the blame when it fits; keep promises and avoid over-promising; maintain commitments and keep your word, i.e., be on time; and be loyal to friends and family, especially when they are not present. And these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

The second step is attitude. What is your attitude toward people? How do you view others? Do you compare yourself to others? Comparing yourself to others will either make you vain or bitter. It is a fact that most people have bias toward people different from them. Are you aware of your bias? How do you view people from a lower social class (with less money), of a different generation, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, culture, or who speak a different language? Do you view people with compassion or disdain? Our attitude toward others affects how we treat them whether we have good people skills or not. So the question is, do you care about people or not? 

We can literally change our attitude about others by changing our perception of them. And that leads us to the most powerful people skill of all: the ability to walk in someone else’s moccasins. When we feel as someone else feels, when we see as someone else sees, when we think like someone else thinks, we have acquired empathy. Empathy allows us to feel the pain and suffering of others. Empathy is the root of compassion and the route to changing our attitude. When we understand the motives and actions of others, we have moved from judging to understanding, which eventually gets us to respecting, valuing and caring. 

Some of us naturally have more empathy than others. Empathy is difficult to teach, but research shows that it can be learned. Empathy is attained by mastering several secondary skills and acquiring an important attitude, curiosity about people. Most of us are self-absorbed and self-centered. We think about ourselves most of the time, and that’s why most of us are not good listeners. When we are curious, we focus on others rather than ourselves. That attitude helps us discover that what others say is fascinating, which fuels transparency and conversation. Even if what they say is not fascinating, people with good people skills pretend that it is. 

Our curiosity must be coupled with two secondary skills, listening and querying. These two skills are essential to attaining empathy. We are taught to read, write and talk. Rarely do we get schooled on listening and asking questions. A curious person asks questions. Think of a curious child. Sometimes they can drive you crazy with their queries. If you are a poor listener, read a book on listening. There are many. If you don’t know what or how to ask, there are many books on the subject as well. Remember Steven R. Covey’s fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Another benefit of acquiring empathy is influence. If your client, child or employee feels your empathy, he or she will feel safe and be more open to your influence. Empathy opens minds. “I understand how you feel” is a very powerful phrase. Seek to be able to honestly say it to others. But remember, you can have empathy, but if you can’t communicate it, your empathy doesn’t count for influence. You can’t just say you have empathy; you must demonstrate that you have acquired it through your listening and queries. The expertise for which you have worked long and hard will be embellished by the empathy you communicate.

A corollary principle to empathy is the one closely tied to the definition of rapport. Besides a mutual relationship of trust, there must be mutual affinity. Affinity is that chemistry that attracts one to another. People are attracted to people who like them and whom they like; people who they think are like them and who they think think like them—people who understand them. 

Getting someone to like you is a major people skill. Since we are human beings, we have much in common with anyone from anywhere. Finding commonness is not hard, even between extremely different people. It takes some digging through our questions, listening and curiosity. When we find things we have in common, they must be emphasized. We must maximize the similarities and minimize the differences. Holding your expertise over others to prove your superiority may actually be counterproductive. Similarity enhances expertise.

There are other people skills that will enhance your expertise, like coping with difficult or toxic clients (whom you cannot change), handling with finesse upset people and emotionally charged situations, being politically correct and dealing with conflict. The basics of mastering each of these skills also require empathy, listening and questioning skills, and being able to control one’s own emotions.

Don’t let your efforts to acquire knowledge, differentiate yourself and position yourself as an expert be sabotaged by your arrogance, your disease of ego or your inability to get along with others. It has taken too long to acquire that expertise. Optimize the results produced with your expertise by completing or complementing it with people skills. It is all about results.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus

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