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

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