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People Skills – Robert Bolton

“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, and 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. [From: Alibris.com]

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

language, and conflict resolution.

A wall of silent resentment shuts you off from someone you love….You listen to an argument in which neither party seems to hear the other….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.

The 12 classic communicative gaps – how these “roadblocks” damage relationships – and skills that can avoid or remove them. Dozens of other insights into your personal power are backed up by practical, workable ideas. [From: Barnesandnoble.com]

Often the best books are those that the author needed to write for their own use.

In the Preface to People Skills, a perennial seller in the subject, Robert Bolton notes that he would never have got into the communications field were it not for the fact that his own people skills were so bad.

The book was written over a six year period while he was running a consulting firm, and the material was tested on thousands of people doing the firm’s communication skills workshops. Participants involved everyone from top executives to hospital workers to small business owners to priests and nuns.

There are virtually no jobs where communicating well does not make a big difference to your success. As many people have found, particularly those in a more technical field, the actual ‘work’ is only part of the job; the rest is spent on managing or dealing with people. Therefore, if you can communicate well, this can account for at least half your success.

Removing the roadblocks

People yearn for a closer connection with each other, Bolton notes. They can be lonely not because they have no people around them, but because they cannot communicate well. He recalls the belief of pioneering psychotherapist Carl Rogers that the chief purpose of psychotherapy is to fix failures in communication.

Yet if we can put a man on the moon and cure virulent disease, why aren’t we all by now great communicators? Partly because we learn a good deal of our communication skills from our family, and chances are our parents were not perfect communicators, and neither were their parents.

Nearly all people want better communication skills, yet often without knowing it their communication is full of roadblocks which prevent real communication with others. Two of the major ones are judging and sending solutions.

When talking with someone, it is difficult to actually listen to what the other person is saying without putting in your ‘two bits worth’. This is the nicer side of judgment-making. The other side is criticism and labeling: with people close to us, we feel we should be critical, otherwise we don’t see how the other person will ever change. With others, we feel the need to give people a label such as ‘intellectual’, ‘brat’, ‘jerk’, ‘nag’, but by doing so we cease to see the person before us, only a type. Our ‘good advice’ is in fact rarely constructive, because it usually represents an affront to the other’s intelligence.

You may be so used to having roadblocks that you may well wonder what will be left if you removed them from your style of conversation. What you would be left with is the ability to understand and empathize with people, and to make your concerns clearly known.

Listening skills 

Are the conversations you have in your life a competition in which ‘the first person to draw breath is declared the listener’? Not many people are good listeners. Research has found that, “75 percent of oral communication is ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten.”

There is a huge difference between merely hearing and listening. The word ‘listening’ is derived from two old Anglo Saxon words, hlystan (‘hearing’) and hlosnian (‘waiting in suspense’). The act of listening therefore means more than just a physical sense, it is a psychological engagement with another person.

Yet listening is not a single skill, but if genuinely practiced involves a number of skill areas.


The common estimate given in research papers is that 85 percent of our communication is non verbal. Therefore attending skills, which are about the extent to which you are ‘there’ for a person when they are speaking, are vital to good communication. You are not looking somewhere else in the room, but through your posture, eye contact and body movement show the other person that they are your focus; you are ‘listening with your body’.

The painter Norman Rockwell was doing a portrait of President Eisenhower, and even though the President was amidst the worries of office and about to enter an election campaign, for that hour and a half he sat for Rockwell Eisenhower gave the painter his 100% attention. Think of anyone you know who is a great communicator, and they will be the same: they will fully attend to you with their whole mind and body.


Following skills relate to how you follow up what a person says to you. Though commonly we advise or reassure, a better way is to provide a ‘door opener’ phrase. These may involve:

  • Noting the other person’s body language: “Your face is beaming today”.
  • Inviting the other person to speak: “Tell me more”, “Care to talk about this?” “What’s on your mind?”
  • Silence: giving the other person space to say something if they want to.
  • Your body language: giving the message that you are ready to listen.

Doing any of those things shows respect; they can talk or not talk as they wish. There is no pressure. Bolton notes that a lot of people are initially uncomfortable with silence, but with a little practice it is not hard for us to extend our comfort zone in relation to it.

In developing your skill at following, you will become adept at discovering exactly how the speaker sees their situation, unlocking or bringing out whatever is waiting to be said. This is valuable to them and to you.


Bolton defines paraphrasing as “a concise response to the speaker which states the essence of the other’s content in the listener’s own words”.

For example, when someone is telling you their problems, you note back to them in your own words, and in one sentence, what they are saying. This lets them know you are really listening, and indicates understanding and acceptance. You may feel strange doing this at first, and you think the other person will wonder what the hell you are doing, but in fact most of the time they will be glad that their feelings are being recognized.

Reflective responses 

This is a type of listening which provides a mirror to the speaker so that the state or emotion they are in is recognized. Bolton gets us to picture a young mother on a morning when ‘everything is going wrong’. The baby cries, the phone rings, the toast gets burnt. If the husband notices this and says something like, ‘God, can’t you learn to cook toast’, the woman’s reaction is likely to be explosive.

But picture an alternative. The same events happen, and the husband says, ‘Honey, it’s a rough morning for you – first the baby, then the phone, now the toast.’ This is a reflective response, acknowledging what his wife is experiencing without any judgement or criticism. Imagine how much better she will feel!

Reflective responses work because people do not always wish to spell out what they are really feeling. They beat around the bush. Only by being reflective, not reactive, will you be able to discern their real message. Psychologists talk of the ‘presenting problem’ and the ‘basic problem’. The presenting is what a person says is the matter, and behind it what is the real problem. This is why you have to listen for the feeling in a conversation. It will point you in the right direction, whereas the common mistake is to only try to make sense of the words only.

People complain that reflective listening takes more time and effort: yes, in the short term, but doing so is likely to avoid major troubles that blow up later on as the result of lack of poor communication.

Assertiveness skills 

Bolton likes to think of listening as the Yin (the receiving aspect) of communication, while assertiveness is the Yang (the active aspect).

Because of the poor communication skills most of us have been taught, when we want something we choose between either nagging or aggression, or avoiding of the issue altogether. These responses stem from the basic ‘fight or flight’ modes we have as animals. But as humans we also have a third option: verbal assertion. We can stand our ground yet not be aggressive. This is easily the most effective means of communication for most situations,yet most of us either forget or don’t know how to use it.

The whole point of assertion statements is to produce change without invading the other person’s space. There is no power or coercion involved, as the focus is on a result. You can remain very angry, and the other person knows it from what you are saying, yet at the same time it allows you to not be hostile or aggressive. The other is left to decide for themselves how to respond to the message, which allows them to retain their dignity, while you have taken a big step in getting what you want.

Conflict prevention and control 

What we really want in life is situations where everybody wins. Bolton presents the counter-intuitive idea that if you define a problem in terms of solutions, one person will win and the other will lose. To get win-win outcomes, you have to focus not on the solution but on each party’s needs.

For instance, he worked with a group of nuns who only had one car between them. Several of them needed the car to make visits and go to meetings, so there were inevitable clashes. When one person had the car, the other lost out. But Bolton asked them: what did each of them need? The need they identified was transportation, and use of the group’s car was only one solution to that need. Seeing it in terms of needs meant that many other possible solutions appeared, and they ended up becoming more engaged in their community.

As the old saying goes, “A problem well defined is half-solved”. Bolton provides a step-by-step process for identifying needs, which then lead you to a solution. From this method surprisingly elegant answers can be found to questions you thought were intractable. But it first requires really listening to what other people require to make them happy.

Final word 
Robert Bolton
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People Skills has been around for a quarter of a century and still sells well. What is the secret of its longevity? Firstly, the book rests on a strong intellectual foundation, referencing ideas from the likes of Carl Rogers, Freud and Karen Horney. Secondly, it sticks to the fundamentals, not trying to cover every aspect of interpersonal relations, but focusing on three vital, learnable skills: listening, asserting and resolving conflict. Although it seems long when you read it, and there is a fair amount of repetition, you tend to come away with a few highly useful tips or techniques that can be immediately applied.

People Skills nowhere asks us to change our personality to become a warm and fuzzy ‘people person’; what it does do is show us well-researched techniques that can make a dramatic difference to effectiveness. We suddenly understand what a person is really saying, and begin to be able to communicate what we really want in a direct fashion.

Conversely, if you still think that having good people skills means the ability to manipulate others into doing or saying something that suits you, not them, Bolton’s book will remind you of the three pillars of respect that really bring good relationships: empathy, non-possessive love and genuineness. [From: Psyclassics.com]

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