Interpersonal skills vs. Intrapersonal skills

Job descriptions frequently cite interpersonal skills – or variants like the ability to influence cross-functional stakeholders – as a required or preferred qualification. While intrapersonal skills get the occasional mention (“self starter” or some equivalent), they don’t seem to ever make it up to the list of top 3 skills required.

What are intrapersonal skills and how do they differ from interpersonal skills? While interpersonal skills deal with the communication between two people, intrapersonal skills are about the communication we have with ourselves. They deal with our mindset, our approach to analysis and learning, and our response to situations.

We’ve likely had plenty of training on interpersonal skills. But, when it comes to intrapersonal skills, we are, for the most part, on our own. And, that’s a big miss because it is in our interest to focus first and foremost on our intrapersonal skills.

Interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are analogous to personality and character. There’s a saying that personality opens doors while character keeps doors open. That’s just one way of saying that the best long term indicator of your ability to build trustworthy relationships is your character.

Or, put another way, your interpersonal ability is only as good as your intrapersonal ability in the long run.

Skills and knowledge

The big insight with deliberate practice is the idea of focusing on skills instead of knowledge.

The obvious example is learning, say, tennis. Sitting in a tennis theory class that explains how to use the racket isn’t all that useful, obviously. It makes intuitive sense for us that we must get out on the field and try things. And, as we try things, we will hopefully have a coach who corrects us when we do the wrong things. That is the difference between developing the skill of how to hit the ball versus simply possessing the knowledge of how to hit the ball.

While this connection is easy to make when we think of sports, it is harder to make this connection with knowledge work or science. In a fascinating deliberate practice experiment in the University of British Columbia, Professors converted a part of the Physics curriculum from lecture notes to in-class discussions facilitated with interactive questions and clickers. The idea here was to move from knowledge transmission to actually helping students develop the skills of reasoning like real world physicists. They executed this with graduate students who were teaching for the first time and improvement was fantastic – 2.5x on a standard test compared to the control group.

skills, knowledge, deliberate practice

This has all sorts of implications for how we think about training in the professional world. A lot of training is still about knowledge transmission versus skill development. And, even if it is skill development, it is done once a year.

As I get back to the working world post graduation in a few weeks, there are a couple of interesting questions on my mind – how do I use the principles of deliberate practice in my work? and how do I use the knowledge vs. skills idea to develop processes to get better?

Deliberate practice has transformed the way we get better in fields like sports and music. It will be much harder to use its principles in fields where progress is less easily measured. But, it can be done.

We’ll just have to stay with the problem a lot longer.

The law of painful progress

I had a realization when I was learning how to play the guitar – if my practice sessions didn’t have me wincing in pain, I wasn’t making enough progress.

This realization served me well in the 8 months I took lessons as I made faster progress than I had initially expected. The results were evident too – weeks when my practice sessions were more painful always yielded more progress.

The law applies to every skill, of course. The more we feel the pain, the more we’re likely making progress. There is no painless progress.