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Essential Skills for a Career in International Relations

A lucrative career in international relations requires a core set of fundamental skills that can help an individual to nurture positive relationships in order to advance overarching organizational goals. The breadth of the international relations profession exposes individuals to working with foreign nations across cultural and political divides, so professionals working in the field must possess these critical skills in order to maximize their effectiveness.


Careers in international relations usually involve extensive interaction with government officials, organization leaders, staff members and the public. To make sure that messages are conveyed correctly to all involved parties, international relations professionals must maintain excellent communication skills. This competency includes face-to-face conversational skills like body language, proper listening, and assertive expression as well as ensuring that messages are delivered clearly and concisely through measured and astute speech. Communication is done through other mediums, like video conference, text, or phone conversation must exhibit similar competencies, commanding respect and conveying thoughts clearly and confidently. Practicing international relations professionals agree that proper communication is a crucial aspect of their work, as they regularly rely on conversation and other forms of communication to develop agreeable solutions to international issues.

Cross-Cultural Management

Managing relationships across cultures can be challenging for inexperienced international relations professionals. A nation’s cultural perspectives and attributes—ranging from social values to preferred forms of communication—can have a profound influence on how that nation’s diplomats and politicians create and shape its international policies. So, when different nations come together to pursue an international effort or discussion, cultural differences like opposing political values, cognitive structures and even historical or cultural expectations can inhibit the success of cross-cultural communication. Professionals in international relations must develop an understanding of cultural differences in the areas they work and how individuals in these cultures might respond to certain actions or communication efforts in order to facilitate successful negotiations.

There are several factors to consider with cross-cultural negotiations, particularly the physical environment of each nation, their history, religious practices and common family structures. For example, the environment in which someone was raised may demand additional empathy, as it may dictate what a person believes to be an acceptable method of handling certain issues, like women’s rights or military spending. Likewise, showing respect toward a person’s religious background is highly important for international relations leaders, as people often allow their faith to influence the decisions they make in both their personal and professional lives. As these different cultural factors can create expectations that will define what a colleague, team member or authority figure deems acceptable behavior, international relations professionals need to develop cross-cultural management skills to help achieve cooperation and collaboration between people from many different cultures and nationalities.


As an international relations career often requires professionals to make hard decisions both privately and professionally, flexibility is a crucial skill needed for success in the field. Professional concerns that are most likely to require flexibility are collaborative efforts that demand a compromise between different communities, organizations or governments because agreements made without proper consideration risk damaging relationships. For example, foreign policy cannot be written to accommodate every individual need of the involved parties, so international relations professionals must be open-minded and flexible when negotiating such policies in order to secure the most desirable outcome.

Being an international relations professional also demands flexibility on decisions made in an individual’s private life. Some people struggle with uprooting their lives to relocate abroad for an international relations assignment, even more so if their family is included in the transition. While not every international relations position requires relocation, individuals pursuing this industry should remain flexible and be prepared to make significant life changes when the need arises.


Much like communication, teamwork is a necessity in an international relations career. There are often many parties involved in decisions being made at an international level, including government officials, organization leaders, diplomats and other relevant international relations professionals. In the case of international trade agreements, international relations professionals among governments must collaborate with foreign policymakers to identify the most reasonable regulations to place upon a particular area of international trade. Emphasizing teamwork as a core professional skill can allow those working in international relations to function as a conduit, transferring ideas smoothly and ensuring that their team can achieve their government’s or organization’s goals.


Analytical skills improve an international relations professional’s ability to solve problems, make informed decisions and process information. These skills aren’t only developed in the workplace; people can increase their analytical skills by identifying patterns in everyday life, making observations about their surroundings, investigating new information, and interpreting specific data. As governmental and global corporate decisions take into account all relevant data, strengthening one’s analytical skills can fast-track an international relations professional’s career, as an employee who is highly analytical can solve problems quickly and efficiently accomplish objectives. Areas of analysis that can most benefit someone working in an international relations capacity is creativity, data analysis, and critical thinking.

  • Creativity allows the analytical mind to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems. Creative international relations professionals can lead their teams to unorthodox strategies that can accomplish organizational goals.
  • Thorough data analysis skills are a requirement, as all acting parties, including international relations professionals themselves, will benefit from having access to comparative data that may be essential to making a well-informed diplomatic decision.
  • Critical thinking is used to evaluate information thoroughly and leverage the insight gained in order to make an informed decision. Decisions that will impact multiple nations should be made with as much consideration as possible, making critical thinking an invaluable component of an international relations professional’s analytical skill set.


Skills in negotiation are also essential in the international relations profession and require a balance between holding an organization’s stance and shifting to accommodate the needs of other parties. The ability to understand what is most important to other negotiating parties and leverage this knowledge can assist professionals with negotiating outcomes that benefit multiple parties. This requires the fortitude to take the lead in negotiations when appropriate and to listen and analyze details when others lead negotiations. Compromise is a key element of successful negotiations, and international relations professionals must often compromise on certain points of contention in order to come to an agreement. This requires the ability to strategize based on a list of priorities, separating potential points of compromise from issues that are less comparable for an employer’s interests.

Experienced negotiators in international relations should also possess critical thinking ability to discern when an agreement is not feasible. At times, the process of international negotiations may not result in an agreement beneficial to two or more parties. Professionals must understand when walking away from an agreement will provide a better outcome.


A master’s degree in international relations could lead to many different areas of employment, particularly in diplomatic roles, international business positions and media correspondence. The nature of these careers all demands that an individual be able to quickly make choices without needing constant direct supervision. For instance, an international relations professional that is tasked with managing an organization’s international business relationships may be relied on to leverage their diplomatic skills to find and develop international partnerships without extensive executive support. Having a reasonable sense of autonomy can inspire professionals to improve their decision-making and stimulate creativity, making autonomy a core skill that professionals within the field should develop and strengthen, especially as they may find themselves in situations where they need to act independently to solve issues abroad.

In the highly dynamic field of international relations, it is vital to enhance and develop a specialized skill set through a combination of classroom learning and real-life work experiences. Today’s international relations professionals must constantly adapt to change and be willing to refine their skill set in order to achieve their professional goals.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of five concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development, Cyber Diplomacy, or Regions of the World.

Recommended Readings
Maritime Threats to Worldwide Oil Distribution
Career Outlook: Foreign Area Officer


No. 5 Best Master’s Degree For Jobs: International Relations, Forbes

Understanding Cross- Cultural Management, Pearson Higher Education

Monitoring and Evaluation: an insiders guide to the skills you’ll need, The Guardian

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