Skills for Working with People

Integrating Academic Knowledge with Personal and Community Development

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Working effectively in a group requires a set of highly complex and integrated personal skills.

This page is the second of three resources that focus on contemporary research and philosophy for developing more human (and humane) forms of education. For greater context, first review the project summary page. See the bottom of this page for links to the other educational resources in this set.


The most successful people are those with the best people skills. Personal skills trump every other kind of skill when it comes to making progress in any field. This is because the learning we can do on our own is limited to our own vision and direction. The amount of support we can offer ourselves is also limited. Isolated people don’t do well (and have the highest rate of early mortality). We need peers, mentors, and many others to inform and shape the work that we do as people. In this sense, all human inquiry is a communal activity. So, in this resource, we consider ways of working with people, ways of cultivating our engagement in collaborative, supportive relationships that enhance one’s own and others’ learning. The stages of that (very complex) process might resemble the following:

Initial: Learners may only minimally engage with their classmates and instructor except when required to do so, and may avoid conflict or engage in it unproductively.

Emerging: Learners engage more willingly with others.

Developing: Learners engage willingly with others, give and receive support, and successfully negotiate conflict.

Proficient: Learners actively seek out and engage in collaborative relationships in and out of the classroom and are skilled mentors to their peers.

Contemporary learners do best when they embrace a dialogical approach that cultivates interaction among learners as a central feature of the learning process. On a continuum defined by relationships on the one end, and interdependence on the other, learners excel when they manage the balance between being sociable and being private in their learning. They are not isolated, nor are they dependent. They like to learn with and from others, and to share their difficulties, when it is appropriate. They acknowledge that there are important other people in their lives who help them learn, though they may vary in who those people are (e.g. family, friends or teachers). They know the value of learning by watching and emulating other people, including their peers. They make use of others as resources, as partners and as sources of emotional support. They also know that effective learning may also require times of studying — or “dreaming” — on their own. The opposite pole is dependence or isolation. Some learners are more likely to be stuck either in their over-dependency on others for reassurance or guidance; or in their lack of engagement with other people.1

Similarly, a crucial feature of mature relationships is that they entail respect for both self and other. Self-authored persons have the developmental capacity for interdependence, or the ability to respect one’s own and others’ needs, to negotiate multiple perspectives, and to engage in genuinely mutual relationships (Kegan, 1994). Thus, self-authorship on all three dimensions reflects the integrated developmental capacities that are inherent in the cognitive, identity, and relational maturity required for contemporary learners to be effective workers, parents, family members, and citizens (Baxter Magolda, 2004c).2

Collaboration and Leadership

Individual learning is contingent upon relationships. Accordingly, effective learning balances collaboration and facilitation during group discussions, activities, and projects. How might the stages of this developmental process look?

Initial: Learners may consistently defer to others and refuse the mantle of leadership, or dominate discussions and decision-making during activities and projects.

Emerging: Learners have taken tentative steps towards either stepping up as leaders, or sharing leadership.

Developing: Learners generally assume or share leadership when appropriate, but may still at times feel insecure or overly confident in their growing facilitation skills, and may offer too little or too much guidance and structure. As collaborators, learners may still at times resist being led.

Proficient: Learners are confident, compassionate, and fair leaders and facilitators who are attentive to the group. They are also supportive collaborators who are attentive and responsive to others’ leadership.

Therefore, an effective learning environment is one that is designed to encourage the development of leadership abilities by modeling good leadership and yielding opportunities to lead activities and discussions to learners. Naturally, this developmental process entails several different levels of leadership quality. Ultimately, leadership does not require formal authority or power but is more a matter of influence, integrity, spirit, and respect. Such leadership quality is perhaps best evaluated using the four levels shown below, with a minimal level of leadership quality achieved by participating at level two.

Level 1 Leadership (Beginner)

  • Gives an impression of reluctance or uncertainty about exercising leadership
  • Focuses exclusively on the task to be accomplished without regard to the people, or focuses exclusively on the interpersonal relations and attitudes of people in the group without regard to the task
  • Asks for ideas or suggestions without intending to consider them
  • May show favoritism to one or more group members
  • Takes the group off track

Level 2 Leadership (Novice)

  • Shows occasional signs of insecurity about leading, or is overly confident about own leadership skills
  • Gives too much attention to the task or to interpersonal relations in the group
  • Asks for ideas and suggestions but neglects to consider them
  • Lets the group ramble or stray off track too much, or keeps the group so rigidly on track that relevant issues or concerns are ignored
  • Has an agenda and goals for the group

Level 3 Leadership (Proficient)

  • Looks comfortable and confident in exercising leadership duties
  • Circulates a prepared agenda in advance
  • Balances the need for task accomplishment with the needs of individuals in the group
  • Listens actively and shows understanding by paraphrasing or by acknowledging and building on others’ ideas
  • Shows respect to all group members
  • Shares information openly
  • Assigns tasks by seeking volunteers, delegating as needed
  • Checks for agreement, acceptance, buy-in
  • Gives recognition and encouragement

Level 4 Leadership (Advanced)

  • All of the positive features of proficient leadership, plus:
  • Engages all group members
  • Keeps the group on track by managing time, providing coaching or guidance, using humor, or resolving differences, as needed
  • Intervenes when tasks are not moving toward goals
  • Involves the group in setting challenging goals and planning for their accomplishment
  • Helps others to provide leadership3

Community Contributions

Beyond the question of leadership, we must also consider how we might contribute value to the well-being of our communities. The stages for this might resemble the following:

Initial: Learners may not feel like they are an integral part of their communities, and may solely pursue individual achievement and gain.

Emerging: Learners have begun to develop ties to the various communities to which they belong.

Developing: Learners demonstrate an awareness and understanding of the needs of the communities in which they belong.

Proficient: Learners find ways to collaborate with and contribute to their communities to address community needs.

An effective contemporary learning environment encourages learners to choose projects that enable them to work with and for the communities of which they are members, building and sustaining community. In turn, we can identify several features of learners who embrace this developmental process:

  • Seeks others to work with collaboratively. Develops, nurtures and sustains communities to achieve common good through working with a variety of groups to address issues.
  • Demonstrates an attitude and willingness to learn about self and others
  • Manages relationships with clear input and congeniality
  • Works to understand and identify individual and group level dynamics
  • Builds and maintains connections between people online and in-person
  • Empowers others by keeping them informed
  • Seeks networking opportunities to expand community and provide new learning opportunities
  • Works towards building bridges between teams4

Personal Responsibility

Ultimately, from our point of view, a defining feature of an effective contemporary learner is someone who takes personal responsibility for actions and decisions as they affect others. Naturally, a broad range of capacities can be identified here:

Initial: Learners do not yet take personal responsibility for their actions, shifting the blame to others, and may not have thought much about the wider effects of their actions.

Emerging: Learners take responsibility for their actions within their immediate contexts.

Developing: Learners demonstrate an awareness of the impact of their actions on wider contexts: on society and on the environment.

Proficient: Learners make choices that reflect their growing awareness of the impact of their actions on wider contexts.

In our view, the most effective learning environments are those designed to encourage personal responsibility by placing a particular focus on social responsibility and sustainable design. In turn, this perspective leads to a much wider one – global awareness – in which a proficient learner:

  • Recognizes how beliefs and actions fit within the context of a greater community.
  • Accepts responsibility for their own actions
  • Demonstrates respect for a diversity of ideas and utilizes the information gained from exploring diversity
  • Builds equitable relationships
  • Evaluates ethical aspects of tasks and work and applies ethical courses of action
  • Participates in activities that contribute to building community
  • Considers the impact – to all people – of personal actions, and to each new scenario5

Ethical Decision-making

Of all the dimensions explored in this project, it is the ethical realm which has been a driving force for us – for education is not always ethical. It’s not difficult to find many unethical scenarios if one speaks to learners. And so, for us, this project is largely focused on how the interlocking dimensions of learning might serve to help learners – and educational cultures – engage in processes of ethical reasoning and decision-making when faced with complex ethical dilemmas. There are some obvious stages in this developmental process:

Initial: Learners primarily take into account what is best for them when engaging in ethical reasoning. Learners engage in snap decision-making, even when confronted with complex ethical dilemmas.

Emerging: Learners have begun to take others’ perspectives into account in their ethical decision-making, but do so primarily to maintain relationships and gain approval.

Developing: Learners demonstrate ethical reasoning that centers around societal good, but may still be rule-bound.

Proficient: Learners engage in sophisticated ethical reasoning and decision-making that transcends rules, is based on universal principles (such as justice and respect for human dignity), and takes the concerns of all stakeholders into account.

Ethical learning environments encourage ethical awareness through developing relational skills such as perspective-taking (which is essential to good ethical reasoning) and engaging with complex real-world problems that have ethical components. Naturally, a spectrum of ethical reasoning can be identified, and it is deeply integrated with childhood and human development:

I. Pre-conventional Level

At this level, an individual (or a child, typically, for this level) is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but they interpret the labels in terms of either the physical or hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels. The level is divided into the following three stages:

Stage 0: Egocentric judgement. The individual makes judgements of good on the basis of what they like and want (or what helps them) and bad on the basis of what they do not like or what hurts them. They have no concept of rules or of obligations to obey or conform independent of their own wishes.

Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. The physical consequences of action determine its goodness or badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are values in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority.

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. Right action consists of what instrumentally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms such as those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, reciprocity, and equal sharing are present, but they are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, not loyalty, gratitude, or justice.

II. Conventional Level

At this level, the individual perceives the maintenance of the expectations of their family, group, or nation as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order and identifying with the persons or group involved in it. The level consists of the following two stages:

Stage 3: The interpersonal concordance or “good boy-nice girl” orientation. Good behavior is what pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or “natural” behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention — “he means well” becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being “nice”.

Stage 4: The “law and order” orientation. The individual is oriented toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists in doing one’s duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the given social order for its own sake.

III. Post-Conventional, Autonomous, or Principled Level

The individual makes a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups of persons holding them and apart from the individual’s own identification with the group. The level has the two following stages:

Stage 5: The social-contract legalistic orientation (generally with utilitarian overtones). Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and standards that have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. There is a clear awareness of the relativism of personal values and opinions and a corresponding emphasis upon procedural rules for reaching consensus. Aside from what is constitutionally and democratically agreed upon, right action is a matter of personal values and opinions. The result is an emphasis upon the “legal point of view”, but with an additional emphasis upon the possibility of changing the law in terms of rational considerations of social utility (rather than freezing it in terms of stage 4 “law and order”). Outside the legal realm, free agreement, and contract, is the binding element of obligation.

Stage 6: The universal ethical-principle orientation. Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles that appeal to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity, and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.6

Speaking to an Audience

How can our ideas and actions be meaningful to others if we cannot share them? Accordingly, this section explores how learners can develop the ability to speak confidently and comfortably in front of groups, and plan for, monitor, and adapt to audiences. Some stages, of course:

Initial: Learners may show reluctance to speak in class and particularly in front of groups. In presentations, they may neglect to account for their audience when planning their presentation, and may read directly from notes and slides.

Emerging: Learners have become more willing to speak up in class. In presentations, they may make eye contact, but still rely heavily on notes and slides.

Developing: Learners are comfortable speaking in class. They can deliver a well-organized, practiced presentation, referring to, but not reading from, notes or slides. Although content is largely predetermined, they do monitor and adapt to their audience to some extent during delivery.

Proficient: Learners are comfortable and confident in speaking extemporaneously, interacting with their audience and responding appropriately to verbal and nonverbal cues.

An effective contemporary learning environment encourages learners to develop oral communications through a learning context in which they regularly interact with the group in a safe and collaborative environment. At the same time, cultivating this dimension tends to work best when learners not only produce static presentations but also participate in and facilitate group activities and discussions. Therefore, on this page we focus on the interactions and relationships between speakers and their audiences, which might be described along the following continuum:

  1. Delivery techniques (posture, gesture, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness) detract from the understandability of the presentation, and speaker appears uncomfortable.
  2. Delivery techniques (posture, gesture, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness) make the presentation understandable, and speaker appears tentative.
  3. Delivery techniques (posture, gesture, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness) make the presentation interesting, and speaker appears comfortable.
  4. Delivery techniques (posture, gesture, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness) make the presentation compelling, and speaker appears polished and confident.7

Writing for an Audience

As a companion skill set to oral presentation and facilitation, effective learners must also develop the skills to accurately and empathetically analyze audience perspectives, motivations, values, and concerns; and successfully address these audience characteristics in written communications that use forms, organization, style, language, and tone appropriate for one’s audience. What would the developmental stages for this look like?

Initial: Learners may not express their ideas well in writing; they may make frequent language and mechanical errors, lack organization, and misjudge the expectations of their audience.

Emerging: Learners make fewer language and mechanical errors, demonstrate basic organization, and show some awareness of audience expectations.

Developing: Learners make few errors and produce a well-organized piece of writing that largely addresses audience expectations.

Proficient: Learners express themselves clearly and accurately in writing, using forms, style, language, and tone appropriate for their audience.

An effective learning environment encourages this development by helping learners to produce writing in a variety of formats, chosen by learners and intended for a real-world audience. Additionally we must consider the context and purpose for writing, which entails considerations of audience, purpose, and the circumstances surrounding the writing task(s). Developmental stages for this process might take the following form:

  1. Demonstrates minimal attention to context, audience, purpose, and to the assigned tasks(s) (e.g., expectation of instructor or self as audience).
  2. Demonstrates awareness of context, audience, purpose, and to the assigned tasks(s) (e.g., begins to show awareness of audience’s perceptions and assumptions).
  3. Demonstrates adequate consideration of context, audience, and purpose and a clear focus on the assigned task(s) (e.g., the task aligns with audience, purpose, and context).
  4. Demonstrates a thorough understanding of context, audience, and purpose that is responsive to the assigned task(s) and focuses all elements of the work.

Naturally, genre and disciplinary conventions come into play here, each with their own sets of formal and informal rules inherent in the expectations for writing in particular forms and/or academic fields. Again, learners will demonstrate diverse levels of capacity in this area, along a continuum such as this:

  1. Attempts to use a consistent system for basic organization and presentation.
  2. Follows expectations appropriate to a specific discipline and/or writing task(s) for basic organization, content, and presentation.
  3. Demonstrates consistent use of important conventions particular to a specific discipline and/or writing task(s), including organization, content, presentation, and stylistic choices.
  4. Demonstrates detailed attention to and successful execution of a wide range of conventions particular to a specific discipline and/or writing task(s) including organization, content, presentation, formatting, and stylistic choices.

Similarly, control of syntax and mechanics will play a primary role in writing, and we would expect to see a continuum of skill:

  1. Uses language that sometimes impedes meaning because of errors in usage.
  2. Uses language that generally conveys meaning to readers with clarity, although writing may include some errors.
  3. Uses straightforward language that generally conveys meaning to readers. The language has few errors.
  4. Uses graceful language that skillfully communicates meaning to readers with clarity and fluency, and is virtually error-free.8

Intercultural Empathy

Of course, no discussion of personal skill can be complete with considering culture. Effective learners must be able to apply an understanding of cultural differences to create shared meaning based on those differences. We would expect to see various developmental stages in this context:

Initial: Learners may only partially and superficially understand cultural differences, primarily through first impressions and secondhand knowledge and stereotypes about another culture.

Emerging: Learners have become aware of significant and subtle cultural differences between their own culture and the new culture. They may, however, experience culture shock and have difficulty accommodating to the new culture.

Developing: Learners have begun to make sense of cultural differences and appreciate, respect, and behave sensitively towards the new culture.

Proficient: Learners demonstrate the ability to truly empathize with the other culture’s perspective, viewing it from the inside, and use this perspective to create shared meaning.

Accordingly, an effective learning environment emphasizes direct interaction with all cultures, and encourages learners to develop intellectual and empathic understandings of those cultures. And, naturally, learners will exhibit different levels of skill in this area, especially with regard to verbal and nonverbal communication:

  1. Has a minimal level of understanding of cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication; is unable to negotiate a shared understanding.
  2. Identifies some cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication and is aware that misunderstandings can occur based on those differences but is still unable to negotiate a shared understanding.
  3. Recognizes and participates in cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication and begins to negotiate a shared understanding based on those differences.
  4. Articulates a complex understanding of cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication (e.g., demonstrates understanding of the degree to which people use physical contact while communicating in different cultures or use direct/ indirect and explicit/ implicit meanings) and is able to skillfully negotiate a shared understanding based on those differences.9


Intercultural awareness can be considered as a process of attitudinally internalizing “insights about those common understandings held by groups that dictate the predominant values, attitudes, beliefs, and outlook of the individual” (Adler, 1987, p. 31). This process can be integrated into three levels:

  1. Awareness of superficial cultural traits
  2. Awareness of significant and subtle cultural traits that contrast markedly with ours
  3. Awareness of how another culture feels from the insider’s perspective (Hanvey, 1987).


The first level is the understanding of another culture based mainly on stereotypes. The awareness in this level tends to be superficial and often partial. Information about the culture comes from media, tourism books, textbooks, or first impressions. In the second level of intercultural awareness we begin to know significant and subtle cultural traits that are sharply different from our own through direct or secondhand experience. In the first phase of this level the experience of cultural conflict may lead to depression, helplessness, hostility, anxiety, withdrawal, or disorientation, but at the same time it provides us a chance to further recognize and understand another’s culture. In the second phase of the second level of intercultural awareness, through rational and intellectual analysis, we come to understand that cultural differences can be justified from the other culture’s perspective. In other words, differences in cultural traits begin to make sense to us. According to Thomas and Althen (1989), in this phase sojourners begin to appreciate and respect the new culture and to develop sensitivity towards cultural differences. Cultural differences in this phase are processed with a positive aspect. Finally, the third level of intercultural awareness requires the ability of empathy to help us see the culture from an insider’s perspective... Empathy allows us to estimate what is inside another’s mind and to share their experience (Barnlund, 1988).10


Selected Sources

  1. Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P., & Claxton, G. (2004). Developing an effective lifelong learning inventory: the ELLI project. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11(3), 247-272.
  2. Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2007). Interview strategies for assessing self-authorship: Constructing conversations to assess meaning making. Journal of College Student Development, 48(5), 491-508.
  3. Bowling Green State University. (2002, Feb 27). Levels of Leadership Quality. Retrieved from web.archive.org
  4. KPU Centre for Co-operative Education & Career Services. (2012, Feb 22). 8 Core Competencies and Descriptions.
  5. KPU Centre for Co-operative Education & Career Services. (2012, Feb 22). 8 Core Competencies and Descriptions.
  6. Kohlberg, L., & Hersh, R. H. (1977). Moral development: A review of the theory. Theory into practice, 16(2), 53-59.
  7. Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2010). VALUE: Valid assessment of learning in undergraduate education. Retrieved from aacu.org/value/rubrics
  8. Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2010). VALUE: Valid assessment of learning in undergraduate education. Retrieved from aacu.org/value/rubrics
  9. Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2010). VALUE: Valid assessment of learning in undergraduate education. Retrieved from aacu.org/value/rubrics
  10. Chen, G. M., & Starosta, W. (1998). A review of the concept of intercultural awareness. Human Communication, 2(1), 27-54.
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Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.