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Improve your personal and professional relationships instantly with this timeless guide to communication, listening skills, body language, and conflict resolution.

Maybe a wall of silent resentment has shut you off from someone you love. Maybe you listen to an argument in which neither party seems to hear the other. Or maybe your mind drifts to other matters when people talk to you. People Skills is a communication skills handbook that can help you eliminate these and other communication problems. Author Robert Bolton describes the twelve most common communication barriers, showing how these “roadblocks” damage relationships by increasing defensiveness, aggressiveness, or dependency. He explains how to acquire the ability to listen, assert yourself, resolve conflicts, and work out problems with others. These are skills that will help you communicate calmly, even in stressful emotionally charged situations.

People Skills will show you:

-How to get your needs met using simple assertion techniques
-How body language often speaks louder than words
-How to use silence as a valuable communication tool
-How to de-escalate family disputes, lovers' quarrels, and other heated arguments

Both thought-provoking and practical, People Skills is filled with workable ideas that you can use to improve your communication in meaningful ways, every day.



Skills for Bridging the Interpersonal Gap

I wish I had some way to make a bridge from man to man...Man is all we've got.

Cross Daman in Richard Wright's Outsider


When one person communicates to another through the medium of language something takes place between them that is found nowhere else in nature. This ability to turn meaningless grunts into spoken and written words constitutes humanity's most important distinction. Language has made possible the development of those characteristics that differentiate Homo sapiens from all other creatures. No wonder the German philosopher Karl Jaspers claims, "Man's supreme achievement in the world is communication from personality to personality."


Although interpersonal communication is humanity's greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well. One of the ironies of modern civilization is that, though mechanical means of communication have been developed beyond the wildest flight of the imagination, people often find it difficult to communicate face-to-face. In this age of technological marvels we can bounce messages off the moon and land space probes on Mars, but we find it difficult to relate to those we love.

I have become increasingly aware of the inadequacy of most communication. In our society it is rare for persons to share what really matters -- the tender, shy, reluctant feelings, the sensitive, fragile, intense disclosures. It is equally rare for persons to listen intently enough to really understand what another is saying. Sometimes people fix their gaze on a friend who is talking and allow their minds to wander off to other matters. Sometimes, while the friend speaks, they pretend to listen but are merely marking time, formulating what they will say as soon as they discover a way to begin talking. Nathan Miller caustically remarked that "conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener."

Ineffective communication causes an interpersonal gap that is experienced in all facets of life and in all sectors of society. Loneliness, family problems, vocational incompetence and dissatisfaction, psychological stress, physical illness, and even death result when communication breaks down. In addition to the personal frustration and the heartache resulting from it, the interpersonal gap is now one of the major social problems of our troubled society.


Many people today yearn for warm, positive, meaningful relatedness to others, but seem unable to experience it. The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan put it this way:

The deepest problem of people is loneliness, isolation, and difficulty of self-esteem in our society. Whereas the problem in Freud's early decades was sexual repression, and the chief problem in the early thirties, when Karen Homey wrote, was disguised hostility, today it is loneliness.

There are two kinds of aloneness. Solitude can be a creative, joyous, full aloneness. But loneliness is a painful, dead, empty aloneness. Loneliness is being acutely aware of one's isolation and alienation from others. As David Riesman pointed out, when one is not vitally in touch with oneself or others, loneliness can occur even in the midst of a crowd.

"Loneliness" -- the sound of the word conveys some of the heartache associated with it. Try saying the word aloud several times in a sorrowful voice: "Loneliness...loneliness...loneliness..." The very word has a melancholy ring to it. It represents much pain for many people.

Several reasons have been given for the increased ache of loneliness in modern times. Materialism (finding one's solace in things rather than in people), the mobility of people, uprootedness of families and the bureaucratic structure of organizations -- these are just a few. I am convinced that another major cause of this interpersonal gap, and the one that may be easiest to rectify, is inadequate methods of interpersonal communication.


Unfortunately, the most intense loneliness today is often found in the family where communication is breaking down or is in a shambles. Marriage, the most complicated of human relationships, cannot flourish without effective communication. Couples hoping to establish an enriching marriage often lack the needed relational skills and end up living parallel lives in a marriage without intimacy. The often-quoted words of the poet T. S. Eliot describe what may be a typical family:

Two people who know they do not understand each other, Breeding children whom they do not understand And who will never understand them.

Proximity without intimacy is inevitably destructive. When communication is blocked, love's energy turns to resentment and hostility. Frequent bickering, withering sarcasm, repetitious criticism, or an icy retreat into silence and sexual unresponsiveness result. One woman, after describing her family's dysfunctional patterns of communication said, "I live in a psychological slum, not a home."

As most parents can attest, it is no easy thing to raise children today. Virginia Satir, a leader in the family therapy field, writes:

Parents teach in the toughest school in the world -- The School for Making People. You are the board of education, the principal, the classroom teacher, and the janitor....You are expected to be experts on all subjects pertaining to life and living....There are few schools to train you for your job, and there is no general agreement on the curriculum. You have to make it up yourself. Your school has no holidays, no vacations, no unions, no automatic promotions or pay raises. You are on duty or at least on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for at least 18 years for each child you have. Besides that, you have to contend with an administration that has two leaders or bosses, whichever the case may be -- and you know the traps two bosses can get into with each other. Within this context you carry on your people-making. I regard this as the hardest, most complicated, anxiety-ridden, sweat and blood producing job in the world.

Healthy communication is vitally important in raising a family. For couples who have competence in communication skills, parenthood can be one of the most rewarding and joyous experiences of their lifetime. When parents have not mastered skills for accurate, congruent communication, the resulting anguish, alienation, and loneliness for parents and children alike can be devastating.

Readers of Ann Landers's advice column were shocked when they read that 70 percent of the people responding to her survey said they were sorry they had children. Though her sample was not a true cross-section of the population, and though Landers admitted that readers with negative feelings had a stronger compulsion to respond than those with positive feelings, there was considerable evidence to support her survey's general results. Dr. Harcharan Sehdev, Director of the Children's Division of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, said, "The Landers letters appear to reflect the general changing trends and opinions of family systems and the place of children in our homes and society."

Communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. When open, clear, sensitive communication takes place, the relationship is nurtured. When communication is guarded, hostile, or ineffective, the relationship falters. When the communication flow is largely obstructed, the relationship quickly deteriorates and ultimately dies. Where communication skills are lacking, there is so much lost love -- between spouses, lovers, friends, parents and children. For satisfying relationships, it is essential to discover methods that will help us to at least partially bridge the interpersonal gaps that separate us from others.


Eighty percent of the people who fail at work do so for one reason: they do not relate well to other people. One's productivity as a supervisor or manager, nurse or secretary, mental health worker or janitor, laborer, attorney, physician, clerk, or minister is greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate well. In fact, it is difficult to think of a single job in which communication is unimportant.

A mechanical engineer mused, "I thought my engineering training was all I would need. But I spend most of my time on people problems." A teacher commented, "I was educated to be a physics teacher. Since I've been in the classroom, I discovered I teach people. I spend most of my energy trying to restore order. Why didn't my graduate program help me with this?" Communication skills are clearly keys to on-the-job success.


Most human interaction is for better or for worse. Each moment with another person can be an opportunity for discovery and growth or for the erosion of identity and the destruction of one's personhood. Our personality development and mental and physical health are linked to the caliber of our communication. One does not become fully human without interaction with other human beings. Indeed, the philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to language as "the dwelling place of being."

People need people. As the title of one book had it, "You can't be human alone." Each person matures through enhancing dialogues with others. In The Mystery of Being, Gabriel Marcel observes, "When somebody's presence does really make itself felt, it can refresh my inner being; it reveals me to myself, it makes me feel more fully myself than I should be if I were not exposed to its impact."

Conversely, lack of communication or frequent exposure to poor communication diminishes one's selfhood both emotionally and physically. Many believe that mental illness is primarily a problem of inadequate communication. The psychologically sick individual has not achieved good human relationships. According to Carl Rogers, "The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication."

Deficient communication can affect a person's physical health. The extent to which constructive or destructive dialogue influences bodily functions, however, comes as a surprise to many people.

Emperor Frederick, the thirteenth-century ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, wanted to know what language had been spoken at the birth of mankind in the Garden of Eden. Was it Hebrew, Greek, or Latin? He ordered an experiment in which the original circumstances would be re-created as closely as possible. A group of infants were to be isolated from hearing human speech from the moment of birth until they spoke their language. The babies were to be raised by wet nurses who were strictly charged to maintain complete silence when with the babies. All the conditions of the experiment were successfully carried out. The result? Every one of the babies died. The lack of communication is often toxic and can be lethal.

The film Second Chance provides a clinical portrayal of this type of physical deterioration in modern times. The fifteen-minute movie shows how lack of human interaction slowed the growth of twenty-two-month-old Susan so drastically that her size and weight were that of a child half her age. Susan's deterioration was dramatically arrested when, during hospitalization, she was given loving interaction and care for over six hours a day for two months.


There is one thing certain about your methods and style of communication: they are primarily learned responses. Your most influential instructors were probably your parents, who in turn learned their approach to communication from their parents. Teachers, scout leaders, friends, and many others added their input. Through radio, television, and other sources, our culture has influenced the way you communicate.

Not many people have had models of effective communication in their home environments. The lucky few who have had such models seem to be "naturals" at communicating well. What seems natural, however, is usually the result of their good fortune at having learned to communicate effectively from early childhood. Many of us, however, were taught to communicate poorly by well-intentioned people who themselves were taught inadequate ways of relating. As far as communication is concerned, many of us are victims of victims.

We first experienced the training process at an early age. Parents or parent-substitutes rewarded some kinds of nonverbal behavior, like smiling, and they communicated displeasure over other kinds of nonverbal behavior such as "temper tantrums." When we were still quite young, they helped us frame our first words. Then they trained us to speak in certain ways. No matter how badly you hated the annual Thanksgiving visit to your aunt's house, you may have been told, "Thank your Aunt Edith for the lovely time you had." When you interrupted two adults who were talking, you may have been taught, "Don't interrupt. Say, 'Excuse me.' "There are many other common training phrases like "Quit complaining"..."Stop that whining"..."Don't ever speak to your mother that way"..."Charles, stop using that horrible language."

Relatives, babysitters, Sunday school workers, and a host of others soon joined the process. "Why, Bobby, I am surprised at you for shouting at Johnny. You are usually such a good boy." "Raise your hand before you speak. I'll call on you when it is your turn." "Susan, don't tell Terry he can't play with your truck. You are not using it now. How can you be so selfish?" "There is no such word as 'ain't.'" "Mind your own business." "Don't contradict."

In addition to the admonitions they gave, the important adults in our lives were modeling certain ways of behaving. Perhaps they rarely disclosed their feelings. Or they may have been sarcastic, used put-downs, or screamed out polluted anger. As children, we learned by the example of the significant others in our lives as well as from their instructions to us. Cultural norms in our society reinforce much of the training we received. Some of these norms are less rigid than they were several decades ago, but many are still firmly entrenched.

Numerous dysfunctional ways of relating that are typically learned by children in our culture are listed by Gerard Egan, a priest-psychologist:

how to remain superficial,

how to build facades,

how to play interpersonal games,

how to hide from [ourselves] and others,

how to downplay risk in human relating,

how to manipulate others (or endure being manipulated)...

how to hurt and punish others, if necessary.

Some people may object that the processes and outcomes described are inaccurate. The portrayal is undoubtedly oversimplified. How one responds to the predominant communication patterns in one's early environment varies from individual to individual. Twin brothers growing up in a home where one parent has a volatile temper may develop very different approaches to handling anger. One twin may repress it, the other may express it belligerently. Many (and maybe most) of us, however, were trained in some very ineffective and destructive ways of relating. A vicious spiral has resulted where the communications faults of parents are visited upon their children. The spiral can be broken. You can unlearn those methods of relating that do not work well for you. This book can help you spot some of the areas that most need attention and help you learn specific skills that lead to more personal fulfillment, warmer and richer relationships, and greater effectiveness at work.

People are frequently fatalistic about their ways of communicating. They tend to think that their way of talking and listening, like the color of their eyes, is a "given" in their lives. To try to change one's style of communication, so the argument goes, is impossible. Or it leads to phoniness. As one physician said, "Relating to people is a gift. Either you have it or you don't. I don't have it and there is nothing I can do about it."

My experience and that of my colleagues in teaching communication skills to thousands of people leads us to just the opposite conclusion. We have noted major changes in our own lives and in the lives of trainees. Patterns that were acquired in childhood have been replaced by more effective responses. At any period of life, the average person of sound mind and determination can learn improved ways of communicating. The research of a number of highly regarded behavioral scientists documents the fact that adults can learn to communicate more effectively.

Of course, it is not easy to alter methods of relating. Years of habit have ingrained certain tendencies for so long that it feels unnatural to relate differently. Any "new" approach seems awkward, and people are tempted to abandon their quest. But once they gain increased awareness of how dysfunctional some of their typical responses are, many people become highly motivated to change. After they have effectively used a communication skill, they often say with excitement, "It works! It really does work!"


Change is inevitable. Erik Erikson, Robert Havighurst, and others have pointed out that people go through developmental stages from infancy to old age. It is impossible to live the evening of life in the same manner as the morning.

The world is changing, too. We speak of the everlasting hills, but in the course of time they rise and sink. We refer to the eternal stars, but they too are in flux: they have their beginnings and ends, they expand or shrink, become brighter or descend toward darkness.

Change has been an integral part of human culture from the beginning. Nicholas Murray Buffer insisted that in the Garden of Eden, Adam paused at one point to say, "Eve, we are living in a period of transition."

In this century, the changes in cultures have been so breath-takingly rapid and all-embracing that Alvin Toffler declares we are living in a period of "future shock." What he means is that change is avalanching down upon our heads at such a dizzying pace that we have great difficulty coping with it.

With change continually occurring within us, in other people we relate to, in the physical world, and in our culture, it is impossible to remain the same.

Even when we try to cling to old ways, they are different. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it, "When we do today what we did yesterday, we actually do something different since in the interval both we and our environment have changed."

The law of change says, "Things do not stay the same. If they don't get better, they get worse." If relationships do not get stronger, they will get weaker; if they do not become closer, they will become more distant; if they do not become more productive, they will become less productive.

You not only can change the way you relate with others, you inevitably will change your way of relating. It is better to manage changes skillfully than to just let life happen to you. This book teaches skills that allow for and indeed foster the kinds of changes that are desirable.


After years of trying to improve my own ways of relating and after teaching communication skills to many others, I have an awareness of and respect for the resistance most of us have to new learnings -- especially if they demand behavioral change on our part. When the change is as fundamental as basic ways of relating to loved ones and business associates, the stakes are indeed high and reworking patterns of behavior can be an act of considerable courage.

When people begin to learn new skills of communication, they often say these kinds of things to themselves:

Will these skills really work or is this lust another of those psychological fads that come and go every few years? Suppose the skills are truly effective -- will I be able to learn them? I've never been especially good at learning new things, especially skills where I must break one set of habits and develop a new set. Gosh, when I think of the trouble I had trying to stop smoking....But suppose I do learn the skills, and they do change my relationships: how can I be sure the change will be an improvement? What I experience interpersonally right now may not be great, but things could be far worse. These skills could get me out of the frying pan and into the fire! Then, too, there is always the possibility that these skills will make me a different person. Though I'd really like to be a better me, suppose I end up as a casualty -- a psychological disaster. Part of me is very leery of this whole venture.

Many of us have more resistance than we realize because much of it is buried in the subconscious.

We need to protect ourselves. Homo sapiens is a vulnerable creature in a dangerous world. However, some methods of protection arrest our development while others work positively for us. One of the key elements in learning communication skills is to discover how to protect oneself adequately while reducing unnecessary defensiveness. Guidelines in various sections of this book will help you protect yourself from needless risk while you learn to use these new skills.


Five clusters of skills critical to satisfying interpersonal relationships are taught in this book:

Listening skills: These methods enable a person to really understand what another person is saying. They include new ways of responding so that the other person feels his problems and feelings have been understood. When these methods are used appropriately, the other person often solves his problems without becoming dependent on you.

Assertion skills: These verbal and nonverbal behaviors enable you to maintain respect, satisfy your needs, and defend your rights without dominating, manipulating, abusing, or controling others.

Conflict-resolution skills: These abilities enable you to deal with the emotional turbulence that typically accompanies conflict -- abilities that are likely to foster closer relationships when the strife is over.

Collaborative problem-solving skills: These constitute a way of resolving conflicting needs that satisfies all parties -- it is a way of solving problems so they stay solved.

Skill selection: These guidelines enable you to decide what communication skills to use in any situation in which you find yourself.

These are the basic communication tools required for effective human relationships. They are the fundamentals.

Part of the strength of this program of communication training lies in the wide range of skills it includes. Many programs concentrate on listening skills, but do not teach people how to assert constructively. In recent years, people have been flocking to programs that help develop assertiveness, but ignore the need for attentive listening. Courses that combine listening and assertion seldom give adequate attention to methods of resolving the conflicts and solving the problems that are inevitable in all human relationships. It is even more unusual to find a communication skills program that helps you figure out when to use the skills being taught and when they are inappropriate. It is futile to use a skill well but use it in the wrong situation. Our program includes what we believe are the most fundamental skills of interpersonal communication.

What is excluded from this book, however, is as important as what is included. Many books on interpersonal communication include such a broad range of skills to be developed and theories to be explored that the reader's energy is dissipated. Skill development requires a sharp focus -- a concentration of energy. In the teaching of basic communication skills, as in so many other areas, the guideline of a famous architect holds true -- "Less is more." One of the reasons for our success in helping people communicate better has been our insistence on sticking to the fundamentals. People learn best when they are not overwhelmed with too many topics and too much detail.


Although interpersonal communication is humanity's greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well. Low-level communication leads to loneliness and distance from friends, lovers, spouses, and children -- as well as ineffectiveness at work.

Research studies indicate that, despite a tendency toward defensiveness, people of all ages can learn specific communication skills that lead to improved relationships and increased vocational competence. These more desirable ways of relating will be presented in succeeding chapters of this book.

Copyright © 1979 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

About The Author

Robert Bolton, Ph.D., is president of Ridge Consultants in Cazenovia, New York, a firm that specializes in improving human performance in industry, health care, education, and government. His staff has taught communication skills to thousands of managers, salespersons, first-line supervisors, secretaries, customer-relations personnel, teachers, members of the clergy, health-care workers, couples, and others. He is the author of People SkillsPeople Styles at Work, and Listen Up or Lose Out.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (November 24, 2009)
  • Length: 324 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439188347

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