4 founder-approved ways to improve your people skills

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Really, a company leader’s most important—and often, toughest—job is effectively managing people.

On any given day, a company leader might have to diffuse tension between two misaligned managers, smooth things out with a frustrated client, work through a team member’s emotional breakdown, and push back against an officious investor. In a broad sense, how well he or she handles these situations can be attributed to people skills.

Really, a company leader’s most important—and often, toughest—job is effectively managing people. Every employee, client, investor, board member, and advisor is, of course, first and foremost, a human being with a unique personality, emotionality, and communicative preferences. The value in knowing how to effectively work with, motivate, and otherwise positively influence the many different humans who will ultimately define your company’s success can’t be overstated.

This is just a long-winded way of saying: In business, people skills are absolutely vital.

In professional settings, a big part of people skills is “executive presence,” which Harvard Business Review describes as “the ‘it factor,’ a heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s going places. It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you’re in charge—or deserve to be.”

Of course, people skills are about more than taking charge. By virtue of dynamic human nature, having strong people skills means being able to deploy both appropriately delicate and direct approaches to different situations. These four founders are here to help you navigate difficult and uncomfortable professional situations by showing you the value of two basic, universally important principles: thoughtfulness and kindness.

—Dan Almasi 

Make sure to take the right approach to tough conversations (Heidi Zak, CEO of ThirdLove)

Most tough conversations at work tend to revolve around performance or business strategy issues. To prepare and execute a tough discussion, I recommend five key things:

1. Give everyone involved a heads up ahead of time. You don’t want to catch people off guard—they deserve time to think over the topic, too.

2. Work together to find common ground. Position the conversation as the two of you working together to find a solution, rather than placing some blame or burden on the other person.

3. Stop the conversation if the situation spirals. Not all tough conversations I’ve had went as well as I would have liked. Looking back on those times, I wish I would have just stopped the conversation. Some people will push to finish the chat regardless. But if you feel like you’re no longer having a rational discussion, then it’s time to let everyone cool off before carrying on.

4. Ask a ton of questions to get clarity on a situation. Our personal and work lives are more intimately connected than we think. Oftentimes, it’s unhelpful to start jumping in with solutions before you have a good sense of what the problem actually is and what’s happening behind-the-scenes of someone’s life.

5. Always try to end on a positive note. Being optimistic can be as simple as saying, “I understand this wasn’t the easiest discussion, but I appreciate you sitting down and having it with me.” A positive comment sets you up to both think about the conversation as a moment in time, rather than something to dwell on for weeks.

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In virtually any business situation, it’s important to help others feel comfortable (Sami Rusani, CRO of ShipChain)

People need to feel relaxed around you. You don’t hang out with someone you’re not comfortable with, and you definitely don’t do business with that person, either.

Think of interactions with clients, colleagues, and employees like you would any other relationship. You can’t build a good rapport until you’re both at ease. If someone’s tense and wary, the conversation will reflect that.

An easy, quick way to help people feel comfortable is simply by finding a connection—something you have in common. Ask them about themselves. Do they have a dog? What kind of music do they like? Yesterday was beautiful, did they get outside and do anything? Oh, they played 18? You golf, too. Talk about it a little.

Once you make that connection, slowly but surely you can build trust and help them feel at ease around you.

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You can’t change difficult people—but you can change how they act toward you through kindness (Jaleh Bisharat, co-founder of NakedPoppy)

At my first job out of business school, I encountered a grouch.

She was the kind who, if you let her, would ruin your day right off the bat. She managed to set a negative tone in pretty much every interaction. This was actually a topic of conversation on my team. Every morning, I would walk by Bella (as we’ll call her) and could actually feel myself being pulled down by her energy.

So I decided to try something new—partly out of desperation and partly to see what would happen. I’d counteract her demeanor with glowing positivity.

Each morning for a week, I greeted her with the likes of, “Good morning, Bella! How are you doing? Love those shoes!” The first time, she looked surprised. But gradually, she lightened up and eventually began acting pleasant toward me. This made my coworkers curious. “Why is Bella being nice to you?” they’d ask.

My decision to be kind to Bella was a risk that paid off. I’d put myself in a vulnerable spot—if her demeanor hadn’t changed, I may have been hurt. But through kindness, I was able to reshape how she acted toward me. Eventually, we developed a relationship. As it turned out, Bella was intelligent and funny.

Through this experience, I learned that while you can’t change difficult people, you can often bring out a better side of them through your own behavior.

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No matter how busy you are, make thoughtfulness a priority (Amy Stanton, CEO of Stanton & Company)

It’s all too easy for small, thoughtful acts to fall by the wayside when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. And it’s even easier to use the fact that we’re busy as an excuse.

But thoughtfulness should be at the top of our priority list. Because the ways we engage with people—even subtle ones—can make such a profound impact on any relationship, whether it be with a client or a loved one.

When we feel “too busy” to call up a friend or write a thank-you note, we need to take a step back and challenge that perception. This starts with taking a look at the places in our lives where we may be taking shortcuts and making a conscious decision to take the longer, more thoughtful route instead.

Being thoughtful is a way of living life with love and appreciation for others. And by slowing down, with a little self-reflection, anyone can do it. And do it well!

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 This article first appeared on Minutes Magazine.