Practical ways to improve your interpersonal skills

The growing prevalence of accountancy software and automation have, it could be argued, made the so-called ‘soft skills,’ such as communication, negotiation and conflict resolution even more important.

These are the sorts of attributes that help accountants stand out and make a difference and what separates us from the robots. Over the next three months, the AATPowerUp series will be focusing on your Business Skills with tips and tricks to improve your communication.

How can you cultivate your interpersonal skills and improve the way you communicate with your colleagues?

Active listening

We all know when someone is only half listening to us and may find we tail off and don’t finish what we were saying as a result.

Alison King, managing director of Bespoke HR, says active listening, where you really apply yourself to hearing what the other person has to say, can significantly help communication with colleagues, peers and clients. “Developing the skill of being able to actively listen is one of the most important attributes you can hold,” she notes. “It can improve relationships with all the people in your life and some research shows it can even enhance productivity.” So how can you hone your skills and become a brilliant listener?

Think about your body language

  • Think carefully about your body language while you are listening and adjust it to an open and positive stance so that the speaker feels comfortable communicating with you from the outset.

Use verbal prompts

  • Use prompts to respond throughout the conversation with affirmations (such as nodding your head) to show that you are listening. This will let the speaker know that you are engaging with what they are saying and helps to keep your mind from wandering.

Avoid interrupting

  • You should also try and avoid interrupting where possible. “You should be able to bat away stray thoughts but be mindful that it is very easy to let your mind wander particularly if the speaker is in full flow,” King says.


  • Paraphrasing what has been said helps show the speaker how carefully you’ve been listening and also helps cement the information in your own mind.


Carl Reader, chairman of business advisory firm d&t, says that being assertive can be an issue for many accountants. “It always has been, and probably always will be, due to the nature of the personalities that go into accounting,” he comments.

Reader points to the DISC personality profile assessment tool by Wiley. “If we use the “DISC” profiling system, we can see that most accountants are high S (stability) and high C (Compliance). However, they also tend to be very low in D (dominance) and I (influence).

Assertiveness tends to come more easily to those who are either high in D or I and, in particular, to those that benefit from both of those personality attributes,” he says.

Make a conscious effort to be assertive

  • If assertiveness is not something that comes naturally to you, it’s something you will need to make a concerted effort to do. Once you have made the decision to try and be more assertive, it will take effort to maintain it.

Think about what you are trying to achieve

  • Thinking about why you are being assertive and what is driving you should help keep you focused. It might be one of your KPI’s or working towards your next promotion but, whatever it is, try and keep it in mind before you revert to your usual submissive default.

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness

  • There is a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive. Being assertive means you are calm, collected and in control. Being aggressive generally leads to losing your temper and causes conflict. Keep this in mind.

Handling conflict 

Just about every workplace will have had to address conflict at some stage or other – whether that be with colleagues or clients. Learning how to handle it effectively, so that conflict never reaches boiling point, is an essential skill to master.

Understand the cause of the conflict

  • The first thing you need to do is make sure you understand how and where the issue has arisen. Look at all the different perspectives and gather any relevant evidence you need to make sure you’ve covered everything.

Address it in a objective way

  • Sometimes it’s easier to bury your head in the sand and ignore an issue rather than try and address it but this rarely resolves anything. Try and view the conflict objectively and not get too emotionally entangled in it.

Call a meeting

  • Ask those concerned to come to a meeting to address potential issues and go through the issues one by one so you can form a strategy to deal with it.

Take a colleague or peer along

  • Asking a colleague along will help keep you calm and may help give you another perspective or way of resolving the issue. They can also take down notes in case there are any repercussions from the meeting or in the event that the issue isn’t resolved.

Giving feedback 

Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, says feedback should be an ongoing, informal process but framed in a positive way.

Start with a positive

  • Always start feedback with what they are doing well before going onto any constructive criticisms. This will help buoy them up and make them more receptive rather than defensive.

Make sure you use the right language

  • “Using appropriate, ‘clean’ language is the most effective way to ensure that feedback is constructive and has impact,” Roberts says. “Rather than telling someone how they did, they should be encouraged to describe their experience in their own words and assess what went well or what could have been done differently,” Roberts advises.

Encourage self-reflection

  • Encouraging self-reflection helps avoid any overt criticism and bad feeling. “Saying, “You did X well but I would have preferred Y to be done differently,” doesn’t allow the person to explore why they did something in a particular way,” Roberts explains.
  • “Instead, ask what do they enjoy most about their work? Which of their strengths do they think add the most value? Encouraging this self-reflection allows people to not only assess the success of a particular task but also to identify areas in which they excel and where they may need to improve.”

Encouraging and motivating colleagues 

If you find yourself surrounded by a negative and unmotivated team, it will inevitably have an impact on your own productivity and mindset. There are, however, a number of things you can do to change this. “If you are a manager, see if you can take a personality profiling test to understand differences in working traits,” says King. “Using tools, such as Myers Briggs, can help you to understand the different personality types within the team and the best ways to get them to work together.”


  • It might sound a little obvious but communicating and talking to your team really helps. “Your first focus should be on communication – talk to your team to help find the route of the problem,” King advises.

Get the line managers involved

  • Everyone works better when they feel appreciated and valued so it’s vital for managers to be as encouraging as possible.  “Good managers need to be mindful and almost remind themselves at given points to thank their team for the work they’ve done, to make sure a job is well done is congratulated, and to make sure that feedback is shared as widely as possible,” Reader says.

Find out what makes them tick

  • People are motivated by different things and what might appeal to one person might not work for another. Keep this in mind when you are trying to encourage and motivate your employees and try and find out what makes them tick.

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Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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