Working Better Together

Applying the principles of behaviorism to interpersonal relationships in the workplace

Vincent Vanhoucke
11 min readAug 24, 2023

What follows is the description of an experimental training curriculum aimed at improving interpersonal effectiveness, which my team took part in a few years ago with extremely good results. In presenting it here, I hope to inspire more interest in targeting such skills as an effective tool for enhancing both team dynamics and individual psychological safety.


Workplace education programs typically focus on either team bonding or leadership development. Comparatively little attention has been given to interpersonal skills: how people communicate their needs, their concerns and aspirations, and how they respond to adversity and conflict.

This can be a particular concern in more technical disciplines, where interpersonal communication skills are often not sufficiently represented as part of technical job proficiency training and evaluations. Anyone who has ever been part of an engineering organization, however, would likely agree that gaps in these skills are often a major factor in the overall team’s effectiveness and technical output. Fostering high levels of psychological safety at work is crucial, and people rightfully expect employers to be an active participant in fostering that culture.

A popular misconception is that these soft skills cannot be taught. There is ample evidence that they can, which largely comes from the vast literature of clinical psychology. While this literature typically targets individuals with severe interpersonal communication deficiencies, brought about by psychopathology or addiction, many of the techniques and strategies that are deployed in these clinical settings are surprisingly well-matched to non-clinical up-skilling of otherwise healthy populations.

I describe here an experimental curriculum, developed by clinical psychologists, which leverages the principles of behaviorism to teach strategies to improve interpersonal skills. Example skills include shaping, reinforcement, validation, assertiveness, as well as managing conflict and acceptance.

In a pilot experiment conducted in a software engineering and research team, we measured marked improvements in various metrics of communication and well-being, suggesting that interpersonal effectiveness skills could be a choice, under-appreciated target for workplace training programs.

Program Description

The curriculum progressively builds a vocabulary and set of tools which start from general strategies for influence and relationship building, to more specific skills for asserting oneself and conflict management, concluding with skills pertaining to the regulation of one’s own reactions through deep acceptance and self-reflection.

Principles of Behaviorism

Any intervention aimed at changing an individual’s posture towards interpersonal relationships begins with understanding the fundamental levers one can employ to affect behaviors, such as:

  • Reinforcement: providing a reward for desired behavior that functions to increase the probability that the behavior will be repeated.
  • Shaping: the progressive reinforcement of approximations to the desired behavior, aiming to steer towards it.
  • Extinction: the removal of reinforcements that are (often unintentionally) maintaining a behavior.
  • Punishment: maintaining contingencies for ineffective, dangerous, or problematic behavior.

Many individuals will readily recognize behavioral principles like positive and negative reinforcement; however, few understand the finer points (i.e., timing, specificity, etc.) around how to administer them effectively. Given the skill reinforcement requires and our innate “negativity bias” toward aversive stimuli, most people inadvertently focus on punishing behavior they don’t like in others rather than reinforcing that which they do. While punishment can certainly function to change behavior in the right context, it does so at the expense of the relationship, and will backfire if not balanced with reinforcement.

Similarly, principles like shaping and extinction, which are widely used and appreciated in the context of animal training and parenting, are rarely considered or used effectively to manage problematic interpersonal behaviors in adults.

Training in how to effectively apply principles of behaviorism, such as those listed above, was at the foundation of our program and provided a common “language,” with which to explain and conceptualize the remaining inter and intra personal strategies. It may come as a surprise that a curriculum aimed at improving interpersonal relationships would begin by providing tools aiming at inducing behavior change in others. As a motivating example, consider how using “please” to add humility to one’s request on another makes the other person more willing to consider the request. Even when not intentionally using these strategies, we are inadvertently nudging our colleagues to be more or less likely to collaborate with us effectively. Understanding these “rules of the road” for interpersonal interactions brings these choices into conscious awareness instead of up to chance or bad habits.

One natural concern would be that anyone witnessing another colleague subsequently deploy the techniques presented in the curriculum on them would feel manipulated and react negatively, or that the tactics used would merely lose their effectiveness as a result. On the contrary, we observed that having a shared vocabulary provides structure and shared understanding of how to approach difficult conversations that might otherwise be avoided. When it comes to people’s reactions to intervention or manipulation, people were pretty quick to identify phoniness, and we didn’t see anything during the course of the training that changed that dynamic. Sincerity, on the other hand, was powerful when combined with the transparent use of strategies from the course, presumably because the effort and authenticity reflect an awareness of the other person’s experience and an investment in the relationship. In our experimental cohort, people would frequently explicitly label what technique they were deploying during an exchange, as a device for grounding the conversation. As an illustration, “I really appreciated you reviewing my code so quickly, it helped me get my project done before the deadline. Hoping to reinforce this, I am sending my friend an email to poke them to reply to your email that you mentioned you’ve been waiting on.”


The next critical component of the program was training in validation. Whereas behaviorism focuses on behavioral change, validation is about acceptance. In a sentence, validation communicates awareness, understanding, and concern for another person and/or their position. It demonstrates acceptance, not agreement or approval. When done effectively, validation can inoculate a disagreement from being construed as neglect or disinterest from the other person’s perspective.

Validation can be applied deliberately and liberally in almost any conversation. It has proven to foster collaboration, decrease conflict, and increase psychological safety in dynamics ranging from detainee interrogations to customer service disputes, yet is not widely acknowledged as a tool or commonly deployed in technical or business conversations.

There are various degrees to which one can communicate validation; from simple non-verbal cues (e.g. nodding), to more proactive strategies such as actively reflecting back a statement to a speaker. In addition to validating behaviors, feelings, or thoughts, participants learned simple strategies to soften collaboration through attitudinal and verbal cues. Exploring this palette and associated levels of intensity lays the foundation for much stronger relationship building.

Goals, Relationships and Self-respect

Interpersonal communication is often trying to balance three objectives:

  • Achieving a goal
  • Improving the relationship
  • Preserving one’s self-respect

These goals are not mutually exclusive, and it may be possible to achieve all three even in very challenging situations. Participants thus learned how to define and prioritize objectives and deploy strategies towards achieving them. The ability to prioritize objectives is considered an important first step in toward effective communication. Imagine an employee asking for a raise from their manager. How important is getting the raise relative to preserving a good relationship with the manager? Is it more about the money or the recognition of their work (self-respect)? One’s objectives and priorities in this situation will determine how best to approach the conversation.


A common challenge of interpersonal communication is asserting one’s self in a manner that is constructive in terms of one’s objectives while maintaining, or even strengthening, the relationship and self -respect. The FEAT strategy for asserting requests or saying “no” to others, is designed to do just that::

  • Focus on Facts: Describing the situation objectively.
  • Emote: Communicating one’s own emotion,
  • Assert: Make a succinct and direct request,
  • Treat: Rewarding or reinforcing the positive outcome.

Going in-depth into each of these steps is beyond the scope of this summary. Generally speaking FEAT provides a template anyone can use to assert themselves and pattern-match across situations that might otherwise be difficult or stressful to navigate.

Conflict Management

Conflict is unavoidable, but equipping someone with effective tools in managing it can have a material impact on their ability to reach a resolution.

The focus of the approach is in managing conflicts and disagreements to a stable outcome, where the spotlight can remain on the causes of the conflict (e.g. divergence of opinions or priorities), rather than the character or personalities of those involved. Normalizing conflict and providing people strategies to navigate them without escalation is an essential part of maintaining a high-level of interpersonal fluency. To this end, the curriculum introduced a taxonomy of the interpersonal dynamics based on the well-established research of marriage experts John and Julie Gottman that commonly lead to and amplify conflict:

  • Criticism: Attacking someone’s character,
  • Defensiveness: Denying any wrongdoing,
  • Stonewalling: Disengaging while the other is still engaged,
  • Contempt: Communicating disgust, disdain or superiority.

Participants learned how to identify these communication patterns, and develop various strategies for both prevention and remediation against them.

Another aspect of conflict management that isn’t commonly mastered is the art of apologizing for mistakes or wrong doing. An apology’s effectiveness can be deeply influenced by the manner in which it is delivered, and developing a comprehensive tactical plan to deliver an apology can markedly magnify its positive impact. Given the impact of apologizing and the relative lack of education around how to do it, participants learned evidence-based skills for communicating remorse, and how to effectively repair or improve relationships following conflict.

Change, Deep Acceptance and Self-Checking

While the main aspects of interpersonal relationship management naturally pertain to communication strategies, another crucial aspect is to develop skills for managing the self in the face of circumstances that are not entirely under one’s control. Participants thus learned various strategies to help them understand their reactions and cultivate acceptance.

The first set of strategies pertain to analyzing one’s own behavior when emotions are running high. Providing participants with a framework to analyze both the causes and consequences of their behavior in the context of interpersonal communication was considered a first step in enabling them to tailor their toolkit to their own specific needs and circumstances.

Another useful skill is the ability to accept unavoidable setbacks. How one manages when, for example, a consensus opinion doesn’t go their way, can have a material impact in maintaining future relationships and the individual’s burnout. Participants in our program learned strategies to overcome cognitive and emotional resistance when warranted to help them accept difficult conditions, rather than avoid or deny them.

A final skill which supports interpersonal relationships is the ability to effectively change one’s own behavior when it is counterproductive. Participants learn the very simple-to-remember strategy of acting opposite to impulses that conflict with one’s objective. Acting opposite is easy to implement on instinct and broadly applicable to scenarios where a person’s natural emotional inclinations might otherwise impede their effectiveness.


This condensed overview of the material presented in our interpersonal effectiveness training program is succinct by necessity, and by no means prescriptive. Fully developing these themes would fill the pages of a book.

My main objective is to dispel the notion that interpersonal effectiveness is a ‘black art’ which can not be taught, practiced or cultivated. Below, I provide some evidence, collected via a pilot implementation of this program, supporting these claims.

Experimental Validation

Beginning in February 2020, employees within a 80 person work group were encouraged to take part in the interpersonal effectiveness skills training program following the curriculum introduced above. The training and the coaching sessions were very well received and were associated with positive memories 18 month after it concluded:

Fraction of participants responding positively (Agree or Strongly Agree) on a 5-point Likert scale.

We surveyed participants before, immediately after, and 18 months after the conclusion of the training in order to measure their self-reported sense of competency on the skills covered by the training. Participants rated the questions on a 5-point Likert scale (Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree). I report here the fraction of positive responses (Agree, Strongly Agree) as well as the p-value (in parentheses) on the full 5-point scale obtained using a one-sided permutation test. Bolded figures are significant at the 5% level. We did not attempt to control for people transferring out of the group in the intervening time.

Fraction of participants responding positively (Agree or Strongly Agree) on a 5-point Likert scale to competency questions about interpersonal relationships with their work group.

[1] Before and after asked about the past 3 months. 18 month later asked about the past 12 months.

The table above reports self-reported competency of the participants in regards to their interactions with their work group. Considered in aggregate, we find that the training significantly improved this competency (p<0.001), and that this effect was still present after 18 months (p<0.02).

Fraction of participants responding positively (Agree or Strongly Agree) on a 5-point Likert scale to competency questions about interpersonal relationships with their manager.

When it comes to interactions with managers, reported in this next table, the effect was initially significant in aggregate (p<0.01). The effect was no longer measurable after 18 months (p>0.8). We suspect significant changes in the reporting structure within the team, which we didn’t attempt to control for, may have markedly affected this latter result.

The diminishing returns over time are worth highlighting as a potential for intervention. Refreshers, practice workshops, or periodic exposure to the material may be beneficial for securing the long-term impact of the training. Participants have noted anecdotally that they wished for new team members who had joined later to undergo the same training program in order to maintain a shared foundation for interpersonal relationships within the team.

One unexpected anecdotal observation was that team members seemingly ended up favoring collaborations with colleagues who had gone through this shared experience over others. This multiplier effect, when both sides of the relationship had gone through the same training, is a key value proposition of the approach, and suggests that training leaders alone is insufficient in addressing the combinatorially large set of pairwise interactions that take place every day in the workplace.


The main challenge in implementing such training is how to do it at scale. The value of introducing these interpersonal communication strategies is only fully realized when they are internalized through active practice. As a result, a significant fraction of this curriculum was delivered through weekly practice sessions involving direct coaching by professionals, which are costly and time-consuming.


Interpersonal communication is a key component of high-functioning teams. It is surprising how little that skillset tends to be cultivated in the workplace. Here, I attempted to sketch one positive experiment with building a curriculum dedicated to enhancing the proficiency of a team through improving communication. I hope to spur interest in exploring more avenues for this specific type of intervention. While this was framed as a training to enhance team communication, the principles developed in this training are not limited to workplace interactions and are generally applicable and useful to daily life. They have definitely positively impacted my own.


This curriculum was designed by Dr Caroline Fleck and Dr Soo Uhm, with significant contributions from Chris Harris. Margaret Lawton and Shivi Singh contributed to the program’s implementation and survey gathering. This article includes significant contributions from Caroline Fleck, Chris Harris and Soo Uhm. Errors or misrepresentations are all mine.



Vincent Vanhoucke

I am a Distinguished Scientist at Google, working on Machine Learning and Robotics.