Why a Writer Needs People Skills (and how to develop them)

Writing is often perceived as a solitary process. While there is some truth to that perception, it is only half the picture. I think many people actually visualize writers as holed up in our little garrets, shut off from the world, waiting patiently for inspiration to strike. Needless to say, that is a fairy tale, though—as a freelance writer who spends a great deal of time in one room, on one chair, doing one thing—on some days, I do feel a bit shut off from the world. On the other hand, I wouldn’t call my thoroughly modern, fully equipped little office a garret. Neither do I wait for inspiration to strike; I create my own, on demand, every day.

If I do indeed spend large chunks of time working alone, why are people skills on the list of “what it takes”? The answer is that, for the kind of writing most freelance writers do, much of our time is spent switching back and forth between being alone and being together, which require two entirely different sets of skills. When we are with others, people skills are essential to establishing a genuine connection, to assessing who and what we are dealing with, and to responding appropriately.

Obviously, that is not always easy; if it were, there would be fewer crossed signals and misunderstandings, more satisfied clients and editors, and far less stress involved in freelancing. There would also be little need for all the books and seminars on every conceivable aspect of getting along with others. We take those courses, and we read those books (in fact, I write those books) in hopes of finding some magic formula for connecting with people in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way.

While I don’t believe there is such a formula, there are some very common-sense guidelines that have stood the test of time. If they have a familiar ring, that’s not surprising. In one form or another, we have grown up hearing most of them.

1. Don’t treat others as you do not wish to be treated.

This is the universal commandment and the only one any of us will ever need. It applies to anyone in any situation, any time, anywhere. That certainly includes the world of business. If you don’t want to be demeaned, yelled at, harshly criticized, humiliated, ignored, or insulted, it’s safe to assume no one else does either. If you appreciate a simple thank you or job well done for your efforts, you are probably not alone. This is the foundation of people skils.

2. Between stimulus and response, you have a choice.

Much of people’s behavior is an unconscious, knee-jerk reaction to something someone said or did, or to some outside event. A situation occurs, and we react, often automatically. A client criticizes your work; a supplier holds up a project; an editor returns your manuscript with an impersonal form letter. What do you do? Chances are, if you are like I am, you get upset. You are instantly hurt or frustrated or disappointed. But what if you paused for just a second and decided how to respond, rather than just letting impulse guide you? You might be surprised to see the result. For one thing, you would take control of your own behavior and perhaps even of the situation. No matter how bad something appears to be, a negative reaction on your part isn’t going to make it any better. So take a breath, assume you don’t know the whole story, and then respond.

3. Build every encounter on a foundation of respect

That includes respect for yourself and respect for the other person. When you have self-respect, you have the courage to be yourself. You never allow yourself to be put down or poorly treated, and actions are consistent with your personal values. When you respect others, you remember that they share all of your human qualities; you take the time to hear them out; and you try to understand their points of view, even when you don’t agree.

4. Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in his or her shoes.

We make judgments all the time—about people, about appearances, about behavior, about our own and others’ work. First impressions are lasting impressions they say, but they are often totally inaccurate as well. I come in contact with many people in my work; and, unfortunately, I am not immune to being judgmental. A secretary is uncooperative or rude to me, perhaps more than once, and I form a negative opinion. An editor changes the direction of an article, or a client keeps adding more twists and turns to a project, and I label them “difficult.” The truth is I rarely have enough information to make such a judgment; I have only part of a much larger picture. I am not working under the expectations and constraints these people are. In fact, I may not even know what those parameters are. So, since I haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins, as an old Indian proverb puts it, I am not in a position to judge. It’s that simple.
These guidelines aren’t new. We have all heard them in one form or another since we were children. Then, there was a place on our report cards for teachers to check “plays well with others” … or not. Isn’t that what people skills are all about?

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