If you think about it, getting a job is a little like an arranged marriage. You find out a few essentials about one another first—your general background, a few choice interests—and you put on your best face through it all. It's only after the commitment that you actually, really get to know one another and have to learn to get along. That's why it is so important to practice good communication in the workplace.
Many discussions of good office communication consist of tips for coming across well in interviews or how to ask for a raise. However, it's not always a goal or what you can get for yourself that you should be focusing on. You spend more time with your co-workers each day than you do with friends and lovers and family. It's worth it to put a similar effort into your professional relationships as your personal ones. Wouldn't you like that 40 hours a week to be positive as much as your evenings, Saturdays and Sundays with your loved ones?
In my experience, many of the best practices for creating a positive workplace go against our instincts. It's easy to think of work as a place to get ahead, to think of it in terms of salaries and vacation hours and promotions. We're taught to be motivated and to strive, to think five or 10 years down the road. The pressures in our personal lives, like wanting to buy a house or send the kids to private school, make us hungry for more money and recognition. However, walking into the office with a me-me-me attitude and operating from a place of ego is no way to accomplish our goals. Some people get ahead that way, but few of us really want to be one of them.
Think about it: We look down on gold diggers and serial divorcees. Fair or not, we do, and yet we exhibit the same kind of behavior in the workplace. Instead, think about how successful personal relationships are conducted. You slowly build up trust, you try to help one another be better, and you try to understand where the other person is coming from. If these things click, then you get to move ahead, to a weekend away, to cohabitation, to children. But not very many people want to be with someone who isn't a team player.
At work, I often struggle with taking criticism. I panic and sometimes snap at whoever is trying to help because my first thought is that by not doing something perfectly, my employers won't think I have value. It's a terrible, unattractive, harmful habit. I counteract it by focusing on where my bosses are coming from—they just want me to be more effective, to help me be better at my job. We both want the same thing, for everyone to be the best they can be at what they do.
Everyone communicates differently. Taking the time to learn how to talk to each of your co-workers as individuals is well-spent. One might be more sensitive than the others and will need to have things put gently and carefully phrased. Another might not like to talk a lot or avoid personal topics. Some people you can always be frank with because their ego isn't even in the building. Keep people's politics in mind. Put in the effort to see how your tone goes over with the people you speak to most and act accordingly. You know, the kind of attention you pay to your significant other to keep the relationship running smoothly. It can be hard to do consciously what you're often used to doing subconsciously in an intimate setting, but it's a skill that's useful in all areas of your life. Good communication can minimize conflict and maximize results in any setting.
All too often, especially in large, impersonal or toxic workplaces, it's easy to think of your co-workers as strangers or even annoying adversaries. It's easy to think that they should just deal with how you are, especially if you already feel that you just have to deal with them. But that's an egotistical point of view if taken too far. There's nothing wrong with wanting to assert yourself, for feeling confident in your way of doing things. But remember that you can believe in yourself and your approach, and you can even assert it. Just try to be considerate in how you express that. After all, you don't want to accidentally come across the wrong way.
Work can feel like the least personal, least intimate place on earth, a cold and unfeeling power game, but when you spend so much time together and work on such high stakes as how to pay rent and groceries, it's actually as intimate as a marriage. Learning to communicate more effectively at work takes empathy, consideration and willingness. It means backing down once in a while and trying to make your point in a different way. It means being extra-considerate in a way that you are in few other settings. That doesn't mean that you're going to be friends with everyone or like everyone, but better communication can make those hard relationships easier.
Some workplaces can't be fixed, some awful co-workers can't be tamed, but you can still cultivate your communication skills on those tough situations in preparation for more positive environments. Imagine a skill you cultivate at work that you can actually carry over into your personal life and back again, unlike so much of what we learn during our 9-5 lives. Forget who puts in the longest hours or lands the biggest account—the person who communicates the strongest has the most avenues to carry them ahead.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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