Talk the talk to keep the peace

Q  I’ve recently been told that my communication style at work offends some of my colleagues. I didn’t think I was being offensive, however my preferred way of communicating is to be direct with people and get to the point, rather than get into social “chit-chat”. I don’t go to work to socialise, but I can see that sometimes I may appear unfriendly. To keep the peace at work, I’m interested in how I can adjust my communication style when necessary.

A Going to work certainly does not need to be about making friends. However, the majority of humans are naturally social creatures and workplaces are yet another social setting where we need to be mindful of our communication. Failing to modify your communication style to the audience can result in confusion, misunderstanding and even offence; and can be a risk that's not worth taking. Understand your audience: a colleague, boss, friend, tradie, a work-related stakeholder; and think about how they might prefer you to communicate with them. If you’re not sure, ask them, or ask your manager.

But why bother adjusting your communication style? Why can’t you just communicate the way you always have? Some valid reasons to adapt your communication style for your audience include:

— as you said above, to keep the peace at work. Or to avoid conflict. Or, if the situation has become quite serious, to keep your job. Some organisations are full of people who like and need friendly human connections, whereas in other workplaces it’s OK for people to stick to themselves and get the job done with minimal social aspects to their work

— to influence others to your way of thinking

— to make sure your listener understands you

— to inspire people to do great things, improve performance and want to do things for you and with you

— to make and/or keep friends

— to be respected.

Consider the following factors in order to communicate effectively in the workplace:

— vocabulary. Your language should be professional, but sometimes it’s OK to be casual. The best way to know when to use formal as opposed to informal language is to observe how others are communicating around you. It can be helpful to mirror the way others are communicating (as long as they are being professional and not disrespectful of course). You can attempt to mirror people in meetings. “Mirroring” others does not mean you copy what they say, it means using a similar communication style. Also, the way you speak to a child should be different to the way you speak to your manager or a client. The type of language, body posture and facial expressions should be different across those contexts

— when sending emails, start them with a greeting. I’ve seen some people start an email with just the receiver’s name. This may not come across as friendly or even professional, so do start with “Hello (name)”, “Good Morning (name)”. When communicating messages via email, remember it is easy for people to misinterpret you, as you don’t have the benefit of facial expressions and tone of voice. Even if you prefer direct, matter-of-fact emails, consider who you are emailing, and re-read your emails before sending. Ask yourself how it would come across if you were the person receiving your email

— body language. Smile. What is your facial expression generally like? If it is always serious, make the effort to smile when you greet someone the first time you see them for the day. Do you cross your arms across your chest during meetings? Be mindful of this too. Even if that’s a natural posture for you, or you are feeling the cold, people may interpret this in a negative way. When people come to your desk to talk to you, do you have your back to them? Make sure you face them and make eye contact

— the use of “chit-chat”. How many times have you heard: “How was your weekend?” This question and other forms of chit-chat are considered the socially appropriate thing to do. Even if this bores you, it’s a way to connect with people and show you are friendly.

I want to reiterate that you do not need to become friends with everyone at work. It’s completely fine to keep to yourself as long as you find little ways to appear friendly. Otherwise, people may find it difficult to approach you in relation to work-related matters and therefore see you as someone they cannot work with. If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) it provides counselling for which your employer pays. You may consider using this service for some coaching sessions. There is also the option of considering the type of workplace that best suits you. Social workplaces are not for everyone, and that’s OK.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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