Degree? Check. Job? Check. A new office-appropriate wardrobe? Check. In the past, this may have been all that was necessary to start a new job, but these days, as graduates leave college and enter the work world, they need to say goodbye to more than just ramen noodles and flip-flops—they need to leave behind their misconceptions about communication too. Before saying hello to corporate America, new graduates need to patch a few holes in their otherwise excellent educations with some practical tips they might not have received in college.
Recruiters and supervisors often complain about the poor communication skills of many new hires coming into the workforce today, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Poor communication isn’t a trait; it’s a choice, and the good news is that even modest conversational improvements can have large interpersonal effects. One of the easiest—and most effective—ways to ease your transition into the workforce is to change your communication for the better.
Effective communication is the irreducible start point for working with people and getting things done. Here are eight communication lessons you probably didn’t learn in college to get your new job off to a great start:
Take a daily dose of higher-order communication. You and your peers are highly skilled users of social media, text messages, and email. But these modes of communication are characterized by expedience and convenience—it’s easier to send messages this way than to call or to communicate face-to-face.
Not all of our communication can happen effectively along lower-order channels. Sometimes we need to do difficult things with our communication, like resolve a conflict, persuade someone who’s reluctant, or convey a complicated idea. When we reach for our more difficult and time-intensive higher-order communication skills, we can’t afford for them to be rusty. That’s why everyone should practice higher-order communication every day.
Even though it takes longer and is more difficult, walk over and talk to a coworker instead of sending an instant message. Call a friend and tell her happy birthday instead of posting it on Facebook. And go visit your client instead of writing him an email. In these situations, you’ll be using higher-order communication, but the stakes will still be relatively low. You won’t be under the pressure and stress that will come when you have to deal with more difficult issues face-to-face. These daily doses of higher-order conversations will keep your face-to-face and your real-time communication skills sharp, so that you’ll be able to tackle high-stakes situations successfully.
Talk (and type) like your grandmother’s watching. While words can build our work relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless email, or a hasty remark can—and does—land people in hot water all the time.
A quick and effective way to improve your communication is to pretend like your grandmother—or someone else who brings out the best in you—is standing by your side when you are talking or typing. Acting like someone you respect is looking over your shoulder will give you the pause you need to get in front of ill-advised words and provide the space you need to self-correct when you’re frustrated, agitated, or confused.
Expect less from technology (and more from people). Because technology does a lot for us, it’s easy to overestimate its role in our success. But our enthusiasm for what our digital communication tools can do shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the people behind the tools. Our devices don’t possess the communication abilities we think they do.
A tech-centered view of communication encourages us to expect too much from our devices and too little from each other. We assume that hitting ‘send’ means we’ve communicated, when really, the other person may not have understood the message at all. Even with the most powerful connection and transmission devices in human history in the palm of our hands, communication doesn’t happen until the other person understands.
Listen like you’re getting paid for it. The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but made it harder for anyone to listen. Between emails, social media, and texts, there’s just too much communication junk getting in the way. Our thoughts are scattered, our minds wander, and ever-present distractions make it difficult for us to focus on the person right in front of us. We need to make a concerted effort to reinvigorate our listening skills.
Listening decisively improves communication, and that fundamental lesson is one that’s easy to forget in our frenetic multitasking environment. The funny thing is that people tell us all the time about what they value, what they want, and what they’re worried about, but we’re often too busy thinking about what’s in our inbox or who just texted us to absorb much of what they’re saying. The ‘old school’ behavior of listening will help you become a much better communicator and become far more knowledgeable about the people you work with.
Assume you’re a terrible questioner (and set out to fix it). Most of us have poor questioning skills because we don’t think twice before blurting out a query. But questions aren’t neutral; they are powerful communication tools because they change the trajectory of a conversation. As you’ve probably noticed, questions often make conversations worse. Even “simple” inquiries can go awry. “Is this your final report?” or “Did you call John in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.
Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query to hammer home a point or to satisfy a narrow interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. Use your questions to open up a conversation and learn about the topic you’re discussing. If you take your questions as seriously as you take your new job, you’ll dramatically reduce the friction caused by faulty questions.
Act like every interaction might be important. Nothing kills a conversation faster than someone who doesn’t care. And it doesn’t take much more than folded arms, a disapproving scowl, a sigh of boredom, or a well-placed eye roll to make someone feel like what she’s saying just doesn’t matter. And the company newbie, who needs to establish connections all over the office, can’t afford to prematurely shut the door on any relationships.
Conversations are often unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and occasionally exhilarating. We simply don’t know which of our interactions might be vital to us—or to someone else. Words we painstakingly arrange may fall completely flat, while a chance encounter might lead to a vital breakthrough or to a crucial relationship we never anticipated. Because we never know what might happen, the wise course is to act as if every interaction is important.
Don’t “be yourself.” “I was just being myself” sounds harmless, but it’s often an excuse to indulge in bad interpersonal behavior. Authenticity is good in spirit, but in practice it often torpedoes our goals and harms our underlying relationships.
I’m not suggesting that you become a fake, just that you don’t cloak impulsive—and counterproductive—communication in the fabric of “being yourself.” The overwhelming feeling that you should say something is usually a warning sign that you shouldn’t. Smart communicators don’t blurt out dumb things and then try to cover their tracks by claiming authenticity. That’s not what will endear you to your new colleagues.
Let difficult people win. Your coworker Jane loves to argue. Your colleague Jim is incredibly stubborn. Your client in Albuquerque is always moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person spark frequent confrontations. Even if you fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Jane’s arguments, you won’t match her debating skills. You won’t change Jim’s mind on anything. And you’ll be unsuccessful in your efforts to offset your client’s mood swings. Don’t lock horns with difficult people.
At the end of a conversation, a difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your desire to ‘win’ by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. Let difficult people win. And when you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.
Your communication—productive or unproductive, healthy or dysfunctional—is a major factor in how successful you will be in your new job. For the kinds of productive and meaningful interactions you want—and need—at work, pack a few communication ideas you didn’t learn at college in the pocket of your new suit to improve your conversations with your new coworkers, bosses, and colleagues.
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life; founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC; president of On-Demand Leadership; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit. For more information, visit tumlin.com.