Thursday, August 18, 2011

Communication for Social Support at Work

Workplace research by sociologists and psychologists indicates that social support – the help and interaction we receive from colleagues – is a major factor in employee happiness and productivity. A recent Harvard Business Review blog by Shawn Achor HBRblog discusses research showing that giving social support is equally beneficial.

It seems as if the advice our mothers gave us, “It’s better to give than to receive,” holds true in the business world.  Ancor maintains that “work altruists,” his term for highly engaged worker who make an effort to develop relationships with their colleagues, are more productive and more likely to receive promotions.

Social engagement at work can be challenging

Many of us are reluctant to engage colleagues in conversation when we don’t know them well. We hesitate for fear of intruding, we may be naturally shy, or we may feel it’s impolite to approach someone new in the café or hallway.  While these reasons are understandable, I find in my coaching work that people are often reluctant because they lack appropriate language for beginning a conversation. Following are some tips for opening a conversation with a colleague or person you don’t know well.

Shoot the breeze

Think of what you might have in common with the other person. Be honest, as people can tell when you are faking interest. Here are some ideas for finding a connection:
·        In the parking lot, remark on the other person’s car, and ask about the car’s performance. State that you have been thinking about buying another car.
·        In the café, express curiosity about the dish the other person has chosen (or brought from home). How was it fixed? How might you fix such a dish?
·        In the coffee line, remark about the weather, (cold, hot, changing), and what you/your family plans to do for the weekend. Then enquire about the other person’s weekend plans.
·        At break time during a conference, approach a fellow audience member with a comment about the lecture you’ve just heard, and a question about what the other person found to be of interest. Don’t simply ask, “Did you like it?” to which the other person can say “yes” or “no.” End of conversation.

Bounce an idea around

·        Ask open-ended questions. Start your question by using an interrogative word such as who, what, where, when, why, or how. These inviting opening words prompt the other person to speak at length.
·        Do not ask yes/no questions, or the conversation may come to a quick halt.
·        Be prepared to ask two or three questions to show interest in the other person, as well as to expand the topic. You want to allow for the conversation to move in directions you may not have imagined.  
·        Then make a comment about yourself, your family, or your work project. Add information that will help the other person see the possibilities of continuing to talk with you.

To talk shop, or not?

The workplace offers many openings for a conversation: your company’s stock price, renovations to the lunchroom, how the new product is doing in the marketplace. Such topics are fine, though if you only “talk shop” you won’t usually have a chance to develop a more personal connection.

An alternative is to use the tips above to learn about the other person’s family, interests (music, sports, TV shows, hobbies, etc.), weekend plans, or cultural background. Such shared information in a relaxing setting, freely exchanged to the degree that you and the other person feel comfortable, can go a long way to building social connections that will nourish you at work, and also help your career.

You might give yourself a task: approach one new person each week. Start with a person you know a bit, and then widen your social network. Put the task on your calendar so you will be sure to remember to socially engage others.

** I’m taking a short summer holiday break from my blog, but I’ll be back in early September with more communication insights and tips, including a series of blogs on how to give a compelling presentation.

I welcome your suggestions for blog topics, as well as comments on this and previous blogs.  

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When the Chips are Down

During the recent Congressional debt ceiling debate, President Obama spoke often of the need for compromise, transparency, and a fair deal for all sides. I got to thinking that while we might agree that such attitudes are inherent in a civilized society, the idiomatic expressions Americans use in negotiations (whether in politics or in the business conference room) support very different values of confrontation and a “winner take all” approach.

Who blinked? Who folded? Who cut a deal?

These and so many other idiomatic expressions arose out of card games, gambling, and risk-taking. Card games such as poker produce clear winners – players who rake chips off the table and count their money. In business and politics, however, victory is complicated by who is seen as having blinked (showed weakness), cut a deal (not necessarily positive of your side is uncompromising), or bluffed (deliberately misleading opponents) Perception of strength and winning is as important as the actual content of the victory.

An ace up my sleeve

In negotiation, it’s strategic to have a hidden advantage or resource that you can pull out at a critical moment in the discussion. Aces are usually the best card in a poker player’s hand, and many a poker player in the Wild West found that a hole card, an ace in the hole, or an ace up his sleeve to be useful securing a win. Of course, to the opposition, producing such an advantage at the last moment leads to shouts of “unfair.”

A poker face

Successful negotiators hold their cards close to their vests so as not to reveal plans or innovations prematurely. To tip your hand and reveal your cards (strengths) might allow a competitor to get to market first. So while transparency is applauded, in Congress and in business negotiations, we see a lot of poker faces. Good poker players never reveal in their faces or bodies how good (or poor) the cards are they are holding. They dare their opponents to throw in their chips (give up), rather than risk losing more.

Call my bluff

A corollary idiom is a bluff. To bluff is to show confidence even if one doesn’t hold a winning hand of cards in hopes the other side will give up. We see politicians on TV all the time touting with great assurance that they have the better argument, the voters’ support, or the ability to stop the other side. Of course so much rhetoric is suspect, which is why speaking out or not speaking at all may be a strategy. After all, if they play their cards right, and prevent verbal mistakes that the opposition or the media will pounce on, they might win. All the while, we, the public, know only a small part of the behind-the-scenes story.

Gain the upper hand

At times in the just-ended debt ceiling debate, the President seemed to gain the upper hand – the advantage. But the tables can turn quickly in a gambling game or in negotiations where the stakes are high (a lot is at risk). Even if the cards are stacked against him, and thus loss seems imminent, many a risk-taker would draw to an inside straight (in poker, to draw a specific card to complete five cards in a row). With luck, some bluff, and a tolerance for risk-taking, he just might win.

Lay my cards on the table

I love learning about and using American idioms, so much so that I’ve written Against All Odds: The Culture and Idioms of Risk-Taking in America: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms (Volume 2)
. In the story I include over 170 idiomatic phrases and expressions. The American psyche seems wired for risk and winning.

For this blog post I tried to come up with idioms that reflect compromise, sharing, and fair play. While we have a lot of sayings that reflect advice we all got from our mothers (share your toys, etc.), the vivid language we use everyday in business and in politics reflects singular achievement, often at the expense of another's loss. A challenge for society, it seems, is to come up with new imagery and language to communicate the need for compromise and win-win outcomes.

What are some of your favorite expressions for risk-taking and winning? Or for compromise and sharing?

Jolinda Osborne

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Take Deep Breaths of Fresh Air when you Speak in Public

We’ve all experienced nervousness when speaking to a group of familiar faces or to a room packed with strangers. And while symptoms of nervousness vary by individual, some combination of shaky hands, trembling voice, flushed face, beating heart, and even brain-deadness can ambush us like a sneaker wave, upend our confidence, and undermine our message.

Fear of Speaking in Public is Widespread

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s famous joke in reference to a well-known Gallop poll is one of my favorites. He said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Yikes!

I just finished reading  Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool. This new book covers recent research on the biology and psychology of fear and stress. The book’s many enlightening stories show how ordinary folks, soldiers, businesspeople, and entertainers handle (or fail to handle) their fears and respond to stress or danger. The book also provides tips for facing one's fears and reacting successfully in stressful situations. The book got me thinking about people whom I help with their presentations, and what advice is immediately helpful to reducing their levels of nervousness.

Breathe properly

Of course people breathe when they stand up to speak, but the breath is often shallow. Thus, too little oxygenated blood reaches the brain, and the heart beats faster to try to compensate. Then the body heats, the brain gets foggy, panic sets in, and… well, you can imagine where this story will end.

To learn how to breathe properly, simply watch a sleeping baby. Notice that the baby’s belly goes in and out as she rhythmically takes in and expels air with the help of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the strong belly muscle. Adults are so intent on “sucking in” our stomachs to look fit that instead of allowing the belly to move out (and take in more air), we hold the belly in and raise our shoulders (allowing less air in).

If I could I’d stand beside you I’d urge you to place your palms around the area of your belly button, keep your shoulders low, and breathe in. Feel your belly expand. Now exhale and feel your belly collapse as you expel more air. It’s a matter of physics – more space in the belly allows for more air. Since I can’t stand beside you, below is a drawing from my book, Improve Your Spoken English and Pronunciation , of how to breathe properly.

A diagram showing the airflow when you breathe

When you can breathe deeply, the symptoms I mentioned above ease. Your heart rate slows, your body remains cooler and steadier, your voice is stronger, you retain enough air to finish each sentence, and you think clearly!

Tips for conscious breathing
• Start breathing through the diaphragm before you stand up to speak. You’ll get a rhythm going, your blood will be more oxygenated, and you will be steadier when you do stand.
• Sit up straight while waiting to speak, and stand up straight when speaking. Allow as much air as possible to enter your lungs. Slouching works against you.
• Pause a second or two before you begin to speak. Use that time to breathe deeply through your nose and center yourself.
• And smile. A warm, wide smile not only connects you with your audience, but it helps you breathe deeply. Try smiling now. Notice that you breathe in. A smile happens on the in-breath. Thus, smiling is a great start to reducing nervousness.

In upcoming blogs I’ll discuss others ways to handle nervousness when speaking.
Jolinda Osborne