Thursday, February 4, 2010

Confessions of a Third-Year Doctoral Student: Interpersonal Skils Matter the Most

An interesting exchange happened on the ARNOVA listserv a couple of days ago. A heated discussion started after someone asked what was appropriate to post on the listserv. Then there were a series pleas and replies where all sorts of emotions run rampant. This was not the first time this has happened on the listserv. This actually happens quite frequently.

I read each reply and started to wonder, do I really want to pursue a career in a place where these types of heated discussions are the norm rather than the exception? Where at certain times egos and credentials are more important that compassion and context? Then I thought to myself, who am I kidding? My ego is what got me here in the first place. I decided to pursue my PhD so I could stand on my soap box and share my expertise with the nonprofit world! So my impassioned pleas about nonprofit operations, technology, education etc would be heard!


After I enrolled in the program I quickly learned its not about the soap box, its about the collective knowledge that's in the room. Its about finding that balance where the information gets across but differing opinions are being heard. This is where teaching becomes an art, an interpersonal dance of when to speak up and when to shut up. Before I began this PhD journey, would react if things didn't go my way or if I disagreed with my boss or co-worker. Now I recognize its not just about the work, its about the interpersonal skills behind it. I now make the effort to pause and reflect in the moment and wonder, should I react in the moment? What will be the consequences? I can still get my point across and be heard without getting offended or upset in the process.

If you're reading this and interpersonal skills come easily to you, that's awesome! But for those of us that are task oriented or methodical, stopping to reflect is challenging! I've learned that developing interpersonal skills is a life long journey for me and I'm still an infant in that regard. Someone recently asked me what I was planning to do after my PhD and I responded by saying "Try to pursue a tenure track nonprofit faculty position or try to work for a nonprofit infrastructure organization like the Independent Sector." This person was surprised by my response and said, "I don't know why you are pursuing your PhD if you are not going to go into academia." I responded and explained that whatever decision I make I know one thing is for sure, that my PhD has been one of the best decisions of my life. I've developed my teaching skills (off the soap box), I've learned how to do methodologically sound research, and most of all I've developed my interpersonal skills.

So whether I end up in academia, the nonprofit sector, or both, my PhD has given me the interpersonal skills to handle anything and anyone as blazing as they might be.


Marion said...

Great article Heather. Sounds like you're ready to graduate and you really did earn your PhD. I agree that interpersonal skills are important and it is something that we have to always be working on.


Peter Golio said...

Good post, though I'm surprised that "...most of all I've developed my interpersonal skills" as a result of a Ph.D. program. I suspect this says more about you, than about an academic program (though it may also reflect well on Leadership Studies at USD).

Joe said...


I enjoyed your post. As a person who works with a lot with leaders I am increasingly aware of how important interpersonal skills are to effective leadership. If you can't connect well with people your ability to teach, cast vision or execute a well-planned strategy will be significantly hindered.

Joe Denner

Mazarine said...

After working under people in the nonprofit sector who didn't have emotional intelligence skills for the past 3 years, I am glad to hear that you have figured this one out.

Yes, the best managers are the ones that understand interpersonal skills.

Be Silent, Be Heard is a great book. Listening. A lost art.

Alexandra Peters said...

You only have to look at your comprehensive site to see what value your academic studies have already offered. Keep going, even with your husband away so much! You have a strong and clear voice, and it will be all worth it with "Dr" in front of your name.

I agree about the "collective knowledge idea" - and since all nonprofits are about some form of collaboration or collective knowledge, your skills are needed. What a boon the Internet has been to the nonprofit world.

Alexandra Peters
Boards Eye View

Heather Carpenter said...

Thanks for all your comments on my post about interpersonal skills. :)

SG said...

I'm in my third year of a PhD program looking for justifications to finish it.

I actually have a different take: I felt that I learned much more about interpersonal skills working for a few years in industry than in my current program; a PhD for me has been a very solitary, lonely experience, where I feel my interpersonal skills have atrophied.