Power Up Your Interpersonal Awareness Skills

Interpersonal awareness: The cornerstone of effective leadership

Consider colleague feedback I collected from an executive’s team several years ago: “I don’t get the impression he’s aware of how he comes across to others,” offered one employee. “I don’t think he’s tuned in to how sharp, harsh or dismissive he can be,” said another.

It’s normal to hear doubts from my client when I share this type of feedback. We discuss the notion that an effective leader doesn’t have to win any popularity contests — but it’s key to not communicate in ways that discourage your colleagues or team from doing their best, or that blow back on you and harm your ability to lead.

If you don’t pay attention to the impact your style of communication has on others, over time, you’ll shut people down — and that can turn them against you. The good news: It’s avoidable and fixable.

Once my client takes in the feedback they will ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?”

“Communication perspective”: What’s your point of view?

In every conversation, there are three points of view: how things look through your eyes; how they look through their eyes; and how they look through the eyes of an impartial observer. Think about it like an author’s narrative perspective — first person, second person, and third person. Here we could simply call it a “communication perspective”:

  • First Position: My own point of view — my ideas, questions, and opinions.
    “I think you should do X.”
    “I’m confident this project is going to complete on time.”
    “You need to revise that projection.”
    When our own expertise or opinion is called upon, or our ego gets the upper hand, or we need to “prove ourselves,” we are taking the first position point of view. First position may be summarized as, “It’s about me.
  • Second Position: I take your point of view — try to see the world through your eyeballs: your ideas, questions, and opinions.
    “I can see you think I should do X.”
    “If I were you, I may be worried about that project.”
    To negotiate effectively, deal with an opposing view, or simply empathize with another, taking second position is a powerful tool. Second position may be summarized as, “It’s about you.
  • Third Position: I take the observer point of view, like a satellite hovering overhead, watching me interact with you. I’m asking myself, “What needs to happen?” and adjusting my actions and words to draw out your best.
    “I was dismissive with him, and need to acknowledge that.”
    “I should stay quiet here; that will encourage my team to figure this out for themselves.”
    Third position may be summarized as, “It’s about how I impact you.

How to use this insight to improve your leadership communication skills

Leaders who need to upgrade their awareness of how they impact others tend to overuse first position, and avoid third position. If that sounds like you, then your homework is to practice in third position, as described below:

In several upcoming meetings and one on one discussions, take a small piece of your attention, and (metaphorically) float it in the air above the room, like a satellite, for the duration of the meeting. Imagine it’s observer-you … watching you, the other(s), and your impact on them. As you do this, silently ask yourself these four questions:

  • How am I coming across here?
  • Is that going to help what most needs to happen in this discussion?
  • How am I helping — or getting in the way of this person being at their best?
  • How should I adjust what I’m saying and doing to draw out their absolute best?

Ask yourself these questions, and adjust how you participate, once or twice during the discussion. The result may be that you say less, or say more, or read others more carefully, or ask different questions. Try again in the next meeting.

Interpersonal awareness is difficult — but keep at it!

Just like any new mindset or behavior, this will take practice. You will lose awareness of it, try again, regain it, etc. Keep at it! When new to it, my clients say practicing communication perspective is like learning a new language — exhausting and headache-inducing.

To find and maintain your best impact on others is to embody leadership at its best. You will be surprised by what you discover — and do differently — from the third, or observer, position. Many clients have told me that learning to use third position deliberately was an extraordinary upgrade to their leadership and business communication skills. It’s one which I hope you will find equally useful.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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