I attended a meeting once where I disagreed with how my coworker was conducting it. Instead of gently redirecting the discussion or privately bringing up my concerns afterwards, I called the person a name right in front of everyone. It was an impulse to release some tension and perhaps shock my coworker into changing direction. I meant no real offense, but it was completely off-base for workplace communication and I derailed the whole meeting. The remaining conversation was awkward, tense, and unproductive.
Note to self: You can undo months' worth of work in seconds when you're not careful with how you interact with others.
For a while I cared for a 10-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. We spent many hours together over many months building a trusting and fun relationship. His mild social skill difficulties forced me to be creative in my interactions and challenged my notions of how to become a better communicator in general.
One day while at his home, he wanted to do something he wasn't allowed to. When I said this, he started to throw a tantrum. He was clearly experienced in how to do this and had likely seen success in getting what he wanted with this method. I knew I was responsible for communicating "no" in a firm but gentle way.
So I threw the tantrum right along with him. I flailed my arms in the same way. I wailed aloud. I threw myself on the floor with the same dramatic motion. This shocked him. Clearly an adult had never responded this way before. Over time he relaxed, and we avoided the prohibited activity.
My tantrum was effective because I changed myself to meet him where he was at in the moment. A message must be framed with the recipient in mind or it won't be heard.
Every person in your building deserves a name. This is How to Treat Others with Respect 101. If they're in your close surroundings and shared spaces, you should know who they are. "Intern" is not a name. "Temp" is not a name. "Janitor" is not a name.
It doesn't matter if the person is employed by your company or is a contractor or will likely only be around for a short time. If you're in the same place at the same time, you need to acknowledge the person. Say hi. Introduce yourself. Smile and be warm.
But most importantly, ask for his or her name.
"It'll just take a minute."
One of the keys to effective communication is evaluating your word choices. Part of that is ensuring that you're representing your intended message clearly, but the other part is thinking about how the words will be received.
"You just have to ___, and you'll be done."
For example, the word "just" often makes me cringe because it's easy to throw it into a sentence without thinking. The thing is, it doesn't add value and when used without care, can cause harm.
"Why can't you just ___?"
The recipient may have a completely different perspective than the speaker, especially if the speaker is asserting that the time or effort required is minimal.
Be careful that your words don't belittle something that for someone else is a big thing.
I once received a glowing compliment via email. The sender's words seemed warm and genuine. I appreciated both the recognition and the person who took the time to send the kind words. I spent the rest of my day relaxed and inwardly smiling. The glow carried into the next day until a wave of embarrassment hit me. When did I last send someone else a "thank you" of that magnitude? When did I last offer a compliment that lasted hours? When did I last validate another's strengths so fully? When did I last do any of those things… and have I ever?
One time a coworker brought a piece of paper to my office where I sat with my back to the door. When I turned to greet her, I was eye-level with the paper and immediately started scanning it and offering feedback. As our conversation wound down, I noticed she was wearing a bright, yellow scarf. What struck me was not the scarf itself, but the realization that I was many minutes into the conversation before I ever looked up at her eyes. I had failed to acknowledge her or engage with her visually while talking! This was a huge eye contact mistake. What a missed opportunity to make the person feel welcome or appreciated for the work she had done.
When I worked with individuals with disabilities, I was particularly close to a 30-something-year-old lady I'll call Debra. Debra was warm, thoughtful, fun-loving, and like most of us, happiest when she had the approval of those around her. We shared many happy memories, although from all our time together, the thing I remember most is the lesson she taught me about effective nonverbal communication.
One week we attended a church service with a group of other individuals with mild disabilities. During the service I was seated a row in front of Debra and a few seats down. At one point while the minister was speaking, I heard Debra whisper something to her neighbor and giggle. Feeling self-conscious already about our large group, I felt a flare of embarrassment and turned quickly to glare at Debra to try to stop the giggling. Debra fell instantly silent. Just as I was thinking "phew, I took care of that," I registered the look on Debra's face. Her eyes were downcast and her whole face crumpled at having disappointed me.
My choice of nonverbal communication had failed in its goal. In that moment I realized I could have instead turned quietly, made eye contact, and slowly shook my head. I had used my eyes as a weapon instead of a tool.