By Marvin Brown
Whether you’re engaging in chitchat with coworkers on the first day of your new job, or talking to a prospective client to land a potential sale, you need good communication skills in the workplace.
All employees experience awkward moments, such as being alone in the elevator with their boss for the interminable 10-floor ride, or getting tongue-tied in a particularly competitive and fast-paced departmental meeting.
Don’t worry! Even if you’re an introvert, being a great talker is a learnable skill. All it takes is a few techniques and a little practice. Here are some common communication pitfalls that can work to your disadvantage in professional settings, and how to navigate around them.
Succumbing to lazy talk. Lazy talk consists of clichés or fillers that we repeat so often, we don’t hear ourselves saying them. Examples include: you know and like. Overusing the word thing, when another word would be more descriptive, and vague expressions such as etc., whatever, and stuff like that are also lazy talk.
The fix: Imagine that your words have value, where vague and meaningless words are worthless, and specific, interesting words cost more. Make your speech more valuable by minimizing lazy speech.
Creating conversational dead ends. If conversation doesn’t go back and forth, it serves little purpose. We create conversational dead ends by asking questions that have single-word answers. “How are you?” and “Hi” are two common examples.
The fix: When engaging in small talk, ask open-ended questions that spark meaningful exchanges. Examples: “What did you do that was exciting this weekend?” or “How do you stay so cheerful on a Monday morning?”
Letting a subject pass. People we chat with almost always offer an opening, conversationally speaking, but if you’re not looking for these, an opportunity to go deeper may pass you by.
The fix: If someone says, “Thanks for noticing I lost weight. It’s always a battle to stay in shape since I love to cook,” instead of nodding and saying nothing, you could follow up with a question or statement about dieting, fitness, or cooking.
Offering an opinion as fact. We’ve all been guilty of making declarations that sound as though they should be carved in stone. “That’s the best Italian restaurant around,” or “Obama is doing a great job as president.”
The fix: To avoid being labeled a know-it-all by your coworkers, colleagues, and clients, all you have to do is preface such statements with “It seems to me” or “I’ve come to believe” or “I think.”
Trying to be overly charming. Do you feel the need to tell jokes, throw around fancy words, and be the life of the cubicle? Being overly charming can backfire.
The fix:Good conversationalists talk about plain, simple subjects when trying to get to know and get along with other people. Forget about being super eloquent, clever, or pretentious. Keep your exchanges simple and direct. Trying to impress others will only come across as disingenuous and fake. It’s alienating to others.
Forgetting to speak body language. You may be distracted at work and merely mumble a hello when a coworker walks past. Or when you meet someone new, you simply announce your name and that’s your greeting. Body language is as important as verbal language when it comes to making first impressions, giving your message impact, and winning people’s trust.
The fix: When greeting a work associate, look up from what you’re doing, make eye contact, and smile. You’ve just told that person with your body language, “You’re worthwhile and I’m glad to see you.” When meeting someone for the first time, say your name while extending a firm handshake; research shows they’re 75% more likely to remember you.
Exiting awkwardly. It’s common to have difficulty ending conversations graciously with someone we’ve just met, not to mention those annoying people who corner us at the water cooler where we can’t easily escape. Don’t make up an untrue excuse, such as a phone call you’re (not) expecting, or say, “Well, uh, I gotta go.” If you do, it will create a feeling of bad will.
The fix: Make the other person feel good before you say goodbye. “Richie, it’s been a pleasure (smile, offer your hand), but I have to get back to my office. Hope to catch you later.”
Spoiling a compliment. Many of us have a difficult time accepting compliments. Two of the most common mistakes people make are contradicting the complimenter who tells you that you look great, “Nah, I’m a mess today,” or discounting their words by bouncing it right back, “You too.”
The fix: Take it in, and let the other person know that their gesture of generosity is meaningful. Smile, and say something like, “Thanks! You made my day.”
Texting, not talking. How many times have you been in the elevator or break room where people who know each other are focused on their smartphones? This sends a rude message to the other person that they don’t matter. In business, it’s a missed opportunity to connect and possibly learn something.
The fix: Save texting and emailing for times when you’re alone or actually in the presence of strangers, such as on the long commuter ride home on the train. Practice the art of small talk by asking a polite question about a topic—a current event, perhaps, or a specific detail about that person’s family or interests. “Have you been golfing yet this year?”
Taking criticism poorly. There’s nothing worse than an employee or coworker who won’t hear feedback, gets defensive, and thus impedes progress at work.
The fix:Try to listen to what the other person is saying about your work, not about you, personally. Then respond with a simple statement that shows appreciation, such as “Thank you for pointing that out to me,” or “That’s really helpful—you just did me a big favor.”
Marvin Brown is an expert in business communication strategies, a sought-after speaker, and the author of the instant classic How to Meet and Talk to Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime: Simple Strategies for Great Conversations. Get copies here.