Work hard. Put in the hours. Raise your hand and volunteer for extra tasks. That’s all it takes to earn that next promotion or salary bump, right? Wrong! There’s another essential part of the equation: Communicating at work in a way that ensures you’re heard.
So, how do you talk to your supervisor about a raise or a promotion? And what do you say, if a colleague isn’t pulling their weight on a project? How do you express that you’re feeling burnt out? How do you properly motivate the people you’ve been asked to manage?
When these sorts of issues arise, we don’t always know how to deal with it or talk about it, and that can lead to feeling unseen and unheard. A study from Pew Research Center found that 57% of people who quit their jobs during the Great Resignation did so because they felt disrespected at work.
These communication talents are often slotted into the category of “soft skills,” but leadership and communication expert Jenn Whitmer says there’s absolutely nothing soft about them. “I often call them human skills or power skills, because that’s what really helps us work together,” Whitmer says.
So, how do you navigate these murky waters of – gasp – talking to people? Here are five expert-tested ways to improve the way you communicate at work, and express yourself more effectively. Read below, or listen in to our special podcast.
1. Worker, Know Thyself
What’s the number one trait leaders should prioritize developing? It’s self-awareness, according to a study of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council. “[It] creates better managers that have more engaged teams that run more profitable companies,” says Whitmer.
She has a point. Unless you know what you’re bringing to a particular conversation – your history, your biases, your preferences for how you like to communicate – it’s very difficult to deal with or conform to the ways that others interact. (In other words, others’ styles of communicating at work may be very different from your own.)
One way to get a sense of yourself is to start writing down your goals and your priorities. The things that show up again and again are the things that truly matter to you. Also, ask others who know you well what they’ve noticed about your communication at work. Do you like to build consensus before making a decision? Are you simply looking for others to confirm the stories that you’re already telling yourself?
Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, wealth psychology coach, suggests paying attention to your ongoing interactions or recurring workplace conversations, particularly difficult ones. Ask yourself: “What did you learn about yourself in [this interaction]? What did you learn about the other person? What would you do the same next time? What would you do differently?”
2. Ask the “Three Magic Questions”
Sometimes just the fact that you’re trying to communicate with people who are unlike you – introverts rather than extroverts, for example– can make for a tense environment. Whitmer suggests asking questions in three specific “magic” areas. “You get a lot of wisdom,” she says, and you can start to move forward toward problem solving.”
Question #1: How do you feel about this?
“It’s untrue that we don’t need emotions in decision making,” says Whitmer. “Identifying emotions is a key decision making skill.” In fact, I say all decisions are emotional decisions.”
When you ask that question, you’re trying to elicit if the person is frustrated, angry or excited. Do they feel disrespected or unseen? Once you have that information, you can work with it, and work together to improve how you communicate with one another at work.
Question #2: How do you think about that?
Another way to put this would be, “What are your reasons?” Whitmer says. You want to know what kind of data the person has and what they still need. You also want to know what information you’re missing. These questions will get you there.
Question #3: What do you want to do about this?
Whitmer says at this point, you’re saying: “Give me your solutions.” What are your suggestions for solving this problem or getting from here to there? Once you have all of these elements out on the table you can move forward.
“Conflict at its root is the struggle between limited resources and differing goals,” Whitmer says. “And so if I understand what are these differing goals, we can then solve the problem using the limited resources.”
3. Turn Conflict Into Opportunity
Many women are conflict avoiders. The trick is to learn to flip conflict on its head so it becomes an opportunity. There are a few different ways you can do this.
“One of them is to use conflict as the opportunity to find out what really matters,” says Whitmer. Say you’re working on a cross-functional team. You’re in accounting but you’re in a meeting with marketing and legal and you’re butting heads because you’re each fighting for something important that sits in your turf. There’s an opportunity to determine how all of these interests can come together to meet the goal of the organization. Ask: “What are the values, goals and the mission of what we’re doing together?” says Whitmer.
READ MORE: How to Communicate in a Remote Work World
Kingsbury agrees. It pays, even before talking with other people, to understand what their perspective might be. “Then,” she says, “look for areas of agreement, even if they’re small. The focus should not be on who is right or wrong, but on how a solution can be created that satisfies all of you.”
4. Don’t Get Stuck In Your Own Head
Some communication issues begin (and end) not with others but in your own head. You may think you know what you want to do, but you can’t force yourself to the point where you make a decision, and then let your colleagues know of your decision. Instead, seek to escape the confines of your brain by giving yourself a deadline and then telling your teammates what it is.
“Say, ‘I’m going to take this information and I’m going to study it for three days, and I will either come back and say I need more information or give you a decision,’” says Whitmer. Then, make a side deal with yourself that you can only go back for more information twice.
“Don’t put pressure on yourself or the other person to solve the conflict right away,” says Kingsbury. “It may take time. It’s okay to spend 10 to 15 minutes chatting about it and then say you need time to process what has been shared.”
And, if you’re stuck in the heat of the moment – in an important meeting, for example – try counting yourself down. Say: 5…4…3…2…1…go. And then you have to send the email or ask the question. “There is an understanding that you’re never going to feel ready,” Whitmer says. “So you just have to start.”
5. Sometimes Face-To-Face Is Key
In this remote or hybrid world, sometimes you have to acknowledge that we’re all learning a new way of working. It’s important to understand that there are some tasks that are well suited to being solved asynchronously, while there are others that really have to be dealt with in real time.
For instance, a brainstorming session. Have you ever tried that on Slack? It’s not fun. Neither are kickoffs, post-mortems (where you review a project) or any sort of feedback conversation that might entail conflict. “If it feels relational or process-oriented, you might be tempted to avoid it because it could lead to conflict. It feels easier to send the Slack message or email,” says Whitmer. Don’t do it.
“One of my general rules of thumb is if three written messages didn’t solve the problem, get face-to-face or at least on the phone. Get in real time,” she says. “And if you just expand that principle throughout work, it will help eliminate some of the miscommunication – and more quickly solve the problems that arise from it.”
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