19 minute read

The Purposeful Workday

Making Yourself Understood

Many people assume that communication is common sense and that there's nothing to learn about it. A manager, for example, wouldn't dream of sending a new employee on a client visit without providing in-depth training on what the employee should talk about. However, that same manager will most likely ignore the specifics of how the rep should speak to the client. Sounds pretty dumb, huh? After all, if the employee doesn't communicate effectively with the client in the first few minutes of interaction, he might have the door slammed in his face before he has a chance to recite his product's compelling features. Corporate business is the same way. You could be the smartest, most qualified employee in the company, but no one will care what you have to offer if you're unable to make yourself understood. So how do you ensure that your communication style is a competitive advantage rather than a liability? I'll get to that soon. But first, let's dissect a few types of communication found in the business world:

  • Aggressive: Communication that infers blame, places responsibility for a bad outcome on the other person, and takes credit for any and all successes. The aggressive communicator discourages collaboration and cooperation.
  • Passive: Communication that does not convey the whole picture. The passive communicator shares information with reluctance, fails to offer feedback, and responds with blanket agreement—particularly at the first sign of confrontation.
  • Assertive: Communication that is non-accusatory, nonjudgmental, and conversational in tone. Assertive communicators are in control of themselves. They think before responding, avoid personalizing problems, and consider the big picture.

I'm sure you've had the pleasure of interacting with plenty of aggressive and passive communicators. Maybe some of them were lucky enough to advance to a high level. Usually, though, these extreme styles will handicap a career, because people don't respond well to them. If you have your eye on a VP position and want to be seen as a powerful communicator and a key influencer, assertiveness—or the ability to stand up for your rights, opinions, ideas, and desires, while respecting those of others—is the way to go.

Let me confess that I am not naturally the most assertive person in the world—I definitely lean more toward the passive style. Though I hate to admit it, I think it has something to do with growing up as a female in our society. Women are encouraged to be passive from early childhood up until we're thrust into the corporate world, when we're promptly expected to grow a backbone. Fortunately, communicating assertively on an everyday basis is pretty easy provided you willingly express yourself clearly, confidently, and in a tone that sounds friendly rather than fake.

It's harder to be assertive when you move beyond small talk into the realms of persuasion and confrontation. In situations where you must communicate your point to someone who doesn't agree, assertiveness makes the difference as to whether you are perceived as a leader or as one of those “ineffective” or “difficult” people that populate the lower ranks of corporate business. Hendrie Weisinger, author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, makes the following suggestions for incorporating assertive communication into your problem-solving technique:

  • • Use facts to justify your position.
  • • Acknowledge that you understand the other person's point of view.
  • • Repeat your position (be consistent and don't raise your voice).
  • • Communicate emotion by using feeling statements (for example, “I feel disappointed that you are not comfortable assigning me this project”) rather than accusatory statements (for example, “You don't trust me to work with your clients”) that express an opinion as a matter of fact.
  • • Strive for a compromise.

Plan for important conversations ahead of time. Assertiveness does not just mean opening your mouth each and every time you have an opinion. In fact, let's be frank. One of the most common complaints I hear about twenty-something employees is that they think they know everything and don't hesitate to convince others of this at every opportunity. Rather, have deference for the years of expertise in the room, and the fact that your organization is still in business for a reason. Before you speak, make sure you fully understand your own point of view, and think about the most appropriate way to communicate it. It never hurts to take an extra minute to decide whether something should be shared, and/or if it's an appropriate time to interject your thoughts. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

Watch people around you who are using assertiveness to their advantage. Toronto Star career columnist Mark Swartz recommends choosing a few role models in the office, and noting the behaviors they use to communicate effectively. Why does your coworker always seem to get the ear of your boss? How does your supervisor come out of every staff meeting with an increased budget for new projects? Try some of the successful techniques you see, keeping in mind that your communication style should match who you are personality-wise. If you stray too far from what comes naturally, you might be perceived as phony, and we don't want that!

Now that I've talked about the role of assertiveness, let's cover specific strategies for leveraging three communication vehicles—writing, speaking, and listening—to help you connect with people in ways that will enhance your career potential.

What You Write

I learned the hard way never to write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The Washington Post. I overheard my workmate talking to one of our colleagues about her recent divorce. She sounded really upset, so I wrote her an e-mail expressing my sympathy and telling her I could totally relate to her predicament. Unfortunately, I put in all the details of my own divorce, including my ex-husband's infidelity. I really wish I had just talked to her in person, because I accidentally sent that e-mail to the entire company. I have never been so mortified in my life.

Hilary, 29, Virginia

Word on the street is that if you're not a communications professional, you don't need to pay too much attention to your writing skills. This is not so. In fact, good writing is one of the most underrated skills in the corporate world. Maybe this attitude is a defense mechanism. After all, many businesspeople are bad writers, and how can you judge your employees on something you don't even have a clue about? If you're not the most polished writer in the world, you might very well get away with it. But you're not reading this book so you can just slide by. Presumably, you want to impress the socks off your managers and come out looking better than everyone else. There's no better way to do this than to showcase the rare talent of a superior command of the written language.

I could happily devote an entire book to the craft of writing. However, because that's not what I'm here to do, I'll limit my advice to two simple rules:

  • Rule #1: C&C (Clear & Concise). Most people in corporate business have a very short attention span. Get right to it by prefacing your document with a brief, objective-oriented introduction, and by setting off your key points with bullets for painless consumption. Whether you're writing a routine memo or a quarterly business plan, offer only the necessary information and be prepared to provide supplemental material. Your word choice should accurately convey your meaning, and your vocabulary and tone should reflect your audience. Use the active verb tense whenever you can. Don't load Powerpoint presentations down with too much text; instead, employ plenty of colorful graphics, charts and photographs to keep your audience's attention.
  • Rule #2: Quality Control. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft, so get into the habit of proofreading your writing and having a colleague read it over as well. Sloppiness is the enemy. Every document that leaves your desk should be carefully checked for clean formatting, proper grammar, and correct spelling. Think of your work product as little pieces of yourself sent out into the world. Even if you're the 15th person to review a document, be the one who takes responsibility for sending it forward error-free.

What if you need some help bringing your writing up to par? I suggest contacting local colleges or continuing education programs about a variety of business writing courses. Classes are typically inexpensive, and they can often be tailored to your specific needs. Don't let an inflexible schedule discourage you: Many courses are now offered online.

The majority of written communication now takes place through e-mail, which can be rather complicated. You still want to follow the C&C and Quality Control rules of regular written communication, but you also have to balance a multitude of considerations that are unique to the medium of e-mail.

Allow me to share a true story. A student at a prestigious U.S. university was studying abroad, and e-mailed the dean of Undergraduate Affairs to determine the status of his Resident Advisor application. Because this particular student had been away all semester, the dean had forgotten to include his application in the pool. The student, having lost his opportunity to be a Resident Advisor, was quite upset. He shared his displeasure with the dean via e-mail. The dean became defensive. He intended to forward the student's e-mail to a colleague in the office, adding the comment, “What a little snot. These spoiled brats think they're entitled to everything. Why doesn't he just transfer?” Unfortunately, the dean accidentally hit reply, and the student received his nasty retort instead. No matter how much the dean apologized, the damage could not be undone. The already irate student had a field day distributing the dean's inappropriate and unprofessional response to everyone he knew, and, within a few months, the infamous e-mail exchange had made its way across the country. Ask yourself this question: How many e-mail offenses like this does it take to ruin a prominent university's reputation?

E-mail can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Here are a few tips to make it work for you:

Smart E-mail Communication Top 10

  1. Realize that e-mail is not private. Not only can your company's IT department access it, but you never know who your messages might be forwarded to—accidentally or intentionally. Avoid discussing sensitive information or writing anything negative unless it's specifically requested by your boss and/or supported by fact.
  2. Maintain a consistent corporate persona. You can achieve this by crafting friendly, polite, and grammatically correct messages. Because you can't rely on voice or nonverbal cues, always reread your e-mails to make sure the message you are sending is idiot-proof. Don't get too cutesy with your emoticons (:☺) or acronyms (LOL, BRB).
  3. Keep e-mails short and to the point. Make sure to include an informative and specific subject line (for example, don't just call the message “Update”). Begin with a call to action that encourages the person to read the message (starting with the word you usually does the trick). Put your key message up front, and if the information you must communicate is longer than 2–3 paragraphs, attach a document with the relevant details.
  4. Use e-mail to reinforce in-person conversations. Impart helpful information (for example, FYI—or “For Your Information”—messages) or respond appropriately to an important issue (for example, CYA—or “Cover Your Ass"—messages) via e-mail to reinforce face-to-face discussions you have with colleagues.
  5. Don't use e-mail as a forum to express displeasure or criticize. Do these things in person rather than taking the easy way out. If you must highlight a problem in e-mail, be positive and solution-oriented.
  6. Use e-mail sparingly. Carbon copy (CC) your boss only on messages that clearly demonstrate that you are doing your job. Avoid sending him thousands of e-mails unless you want him to stop reading them.
  7. Use flags and read receipts. When sending an important message to someone who you know is unreliable, increase your chances of a response by flagging the message or attaching a read receipt.
  8. Be courteous. As a general rule, it's considered rude to e-mail a question to anyone sitting within 10 feet of you. Make an effort to speak to these people face to face.
  9. Know what you are sending before you send it. Before hitting reply, carefully read an e-mail in its entirety. If it's preceded by a series of messages, make sure to read and understand the whole string first.
  10. Keep personal e-mails personal. If you want to send personal e-mails at work, set up a separate account. Don't send those annoying forwards to your work friends unless they also qualify as real friends (see Chapter 3).

Before we move on, a word about text messaging and instant messaging (IM). These technologies are near and dear to our hearts, but you must proceed carefully when using them in a business setting. For one thing, don't expect to communicate this way with your colleagues or clients unless they have already been established as acceptable means of interaction. When sending work-related texts or IMs, make sure your name shows up as something professional, and greet the recipient before jumping in with a request. Don't shorten words so much that your point gets lost, watch the level of informality, and be conscious of wasting too much time shooting messages back and forth. And as with e-mail, keep a saved log of important conversations, and always pause for a moment before you hit send. You'd be surprised how many IT departments work their magic to monitor texts sent from company phones and IM conversations sent over company networks.

What You Say

I always keep my notepad handy when I go downstairs, in case I run into someone I need to talk to in the elevator. People in my company are so buried that it's nearly impossible to get them to respond to me via e-mail or voice mail. And forget about scheduling meetings. Cornering them in the elevator is the perfect opportunity to get quick answers so that I can do my job.

Steven, 26, North Carolina

Author and motivational guru Dale Carnegie once said that the person who can speak acceptably is usually considered to possess greater ability than he actually has. In my experience, this is true. If you look and act like you know what you're talking about, people will think that you do, regardless of the reality. You may not have a vast store of knowledge and years of experience to draw from, but you can get promoted just by creating the perception of being competent and informed.

I translate Carnegie's “speaking acceptably” as “effective in-person communication,” because there is much more to speaking than the content that comes out of your mouth. Did you know that only 7 percent of meaning is conveyed with the words you say? People get the rest of your message based on how you say it. In-person communication includes nonverbal cues, vocal style, articulateness, and sincerity, and it plays a huge role in conveying the powerful corporate persona I talked about in the beginning chapters of this book. Let's spend a moment addressing each of these components:

  1. Nonverbal Cues: Positive body language supports your message and encourages cooperation. Position yourself next to the person you're speaking to and lean toward him, but don't get so close that you invade his personal space. Sustain eye contact for several seconds over the course of the conversation, and always smile unless you're delivering bad news. Take the time to focus on the other person, and don't fidget or give in to background distractions. If you want to emphasize an important point, use your hands.
  2. Vocal Style: Need something to do in the shower besides sing? Practice adjusting your tone, pace, and volume according to the situation and/or person with whom you are going to communicate. Enunciate your words so that people can understand you. Whether you are passionate about your subject or not, always convey a little enthusiasm—people will be more likely to listen.
  3. Articulateness: Just as with written communication, practice your command of verbal communication so that you can accurately express what you mean. Improve your vocabulary in order to appear intelligent and well-educated, but don't overdo it. If you throw around too many industry terms or five syllable GRE words, you'll look like you are trying to impress someone. A huge part of articulateness is being succinct, so learn to communicate your main points using as few words as possible. This is particularly important if you regularly participate in meetings. There is nothing worse than being the one person who goes on and on while everyone else just wants to get out of there.
  4. Sincerity: Note that there is a fine line between portraying a strong corporate persona and coming across as being fake. While your tone should generally be confident, friendly, and conversational, you should avoid saying things you don't mean or adapting a style that is completely contrary to your personality.

Voice mail is the perfect medium to work on your in-person communication technique. Your greeting serves as an introduction to the professional you. It is the starting point from which many people—inside and outside the company—will communicate with you. That said, you have to nail it. Record your greeting before or after work hours to avoid office background noise. Politely and confidently state your name, department, and company, and invite the caller to leave a message, which you will promptly return. I would avoid saying what day it is in your message. I guarantee you will get behind in recording a new greeting each day, and, next thing you know, it will be October and your voice mail will still say it's June 5!

Public speaking is another good way to hone your in-person communication skills. Many of us fear getting up in front of a group, yet I've never known a person who was physically incapable of doing it after practicing a few times. Public speaking increases your confidence level, your poise, and your ability to flexibly convey information about your subject matter. It also pays huge dividends in terms of being taken seriously as a twenty-something in the corporate world. Nervousness is natural, but it shouldn't stand in the way of a substantial investment in your career. Look for opportunities to deliver formal or informal presentations whenever you can, and, as you prepare, consider using a few notes instead of a script. Extemporaneous remarks are more effective for connecting with your audience on a personal level and provide much better training for those critical one-on-one interactions.

Even if you're a master of in-person communication, people won't always welcome you in for a chat with open arms. As you well know, the corporate world is a hectic environment where no one has enough hours in the day to do what they need to do. The higher the executive's title, the less time she has to speak with you. Here are a few hints for getting face time with those hard-to-pin-down folks:

  • • Stop by her office instead of calling or sending an e-mail.
  • • Persuade her admin to give you a 10-minute slot on her calendar. (Make sure not to stay a minute longer.)
  • • Catch her for a quick conversation in the hallway or elevator.
  • • Invite her to have lunch in the cafeteria. (Everyone has to eat!)

Once you manage to get in front of the person, say what you have to say and get out of there. If necessary, prepare a list ahead of time of the things you want to cover so that you can whiz right through them. If the person learns that a meeting with you doesn't mean she will be held up all day, she will be more likely to respond to your meeting request next time.

One last point about speaking: if you have the opportunity to enhance your knowledge of another language, or even to start learning one from scratch, I highly recommend pursuing it. As English decreases in prominence and the economy becomes even more global, knowing additional languages will prove invaluable. Most community colleges, embassies, and consulates offer evening and weekend classes, or you could learn from the comfort of your couch with a self-directed program like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur.

When You Listen

You may have taken one look at this subhead and said, “What am I, 5 years old? I thought I learned to listen in kindergarten!” If you think about it, though, this isn't exactly the case. You learned to hear people when they talk, but you didn't necessarily get into the habit of actively listening to them. In our corporate jobs, our relationships suffer, we miss out on a lot of information, and, ultimately, we make our jobs harder because we don't pay attention to what people are saying.

For obvious reasons, it's in your best interest to avoid unnecessary communication breakdowns caused by a failure to listen. Author Hendrie Weisinger recommends that you begin by making yourself aware of ways you might unconsciously filter out what others are saying. Filters are generated by thoughts, ideas, and feelings. They influence the type of and how much information we hear. There are four kinds of filters:

  • The predilection filter: Hearing what you want to hear instead of what is meant.
  • The who filter: Placing importance based on the person doing the talking.
  • The facts filter: Being oblivious to the emotional subtext of the conversation.
  • The distracting thoughts filter: Allowing your mind to wander.

Once you've identified what types of filters you use and under what circumstances you use them, employ these suggestions for practicing “filter prevention,” and also for becoming an active and involved listener:

  • • Don't interrupt.
  • • Don't tune out because you think you know what's coming.
  • • Read between the lines, and assess what is meant vs. what is said.
  • • Acknowledge that you are paying attention by sustaining eye contact, nodding, or saying “uh huh.”
  • • Verbally summarize what the speaker has said, paraphrasing rather than repeating it verbatim.
  • • Empathize with how the speaker is feeling.
  • • Ask specific, clarifying questions.
  • • Take notes to keep yourself focused and to help you remember what's being communicated.
  • • Don't type on your Blackberry, text message, or Twitter while someone is talking to you.
  • • Don't change the subject until you're certain the speaker has concluded his or her point.

You can encourage others to listen to you by emphasizing key points, and by asking for a restatement of your message in the person's own words. Make your position relevant to the listener, and, as a general rule, listen more than you talk. You will stand out as one of the few people your colleagues consider it a pleasure to talk to!

Chapter 5 Take Home Points

  • Manage your time strategically. Arrange your schedule around your priorities, and learn to say no to nonstrategic tasks in a way that maintains your persona as a can-do employee.
  • Implement effective organizational tools. There are only so many things in the corporate world you can control, and your own organizational style is one of them. Find a simple routine that works for you, and stick to it.
  • Be assertive. Become a powerful communicator and key influencer by standing up for your ideas, while also respecting those of others.
  • Fine-tune your writing, speaking, and listening skills. Express your ideas confidently and succinctly. If you look and act like you know what you're talking about, people will believe that you do. Practice “filter prevention” in order to become an active and involved listener.

They Don

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersThe Purposeful Workday - Where Has All The Time Gone?, Saying No, Battling Procrastination, You, Too, Can Be The “organized One”