It might not be a good idea to get drunk at an office party, or to tell a potential client about your warts. Relationships, especially official relationships, at nascent stages need careful handling and a new book, Win at Work, by motivational speaker and author Shaun Belding tells us about the social lines that need to be navigated in the workplace. Edited excerpts from the book:
I have an experience that always comes to mind whenever I think of people crossing social lines. It was in 2001 and a sales representative was trying to sell us booth space for an HR convention in Las Vegas. For the first 30 minutes of our telephonic conversation, he was persuasive and personable—so much so in fact that I seriously began contemplating purchasing a booth for the show. I began asking a number of questions about the logistics involved and he answered them all easily.
Win at Work: By Shaun Belding, Kogan, 183 pages, Rs 195.
At one point, after he had answered a question about Internet access, I remarked “Man, you folks think of everything!” His response to this floored me. “We aim to please Sean,” and then his voice took a conspiratorial tone, as he added, “Unless it’s my ex-wife of course, nothing pleases her, you know what I mean pal?” He then went on a 5-minute diatribe about his ex-wife and all of the horrible things that she had done to him. I was dumbfounded at what appeared to be an otherwise skilled salesperson getting way too comfortable and crossing well over the line. Needless to say, I did not take the booth.
How many times have you seen people make social faux pas that end up alienating them from a group? Sometimes all it takes is a single inadvertent action or word to profoundly change the course of our lives. Here are five general guidelines to help you ensure that you don’t accidentally cross any of these lines.
In conversation wait for other people to introduce topics. This is always a safe practice. If the other person mentions their family, it’s usually okay to discuss family. If the other person mentions pets, it’s usually okay to talk about pets. Otherwise, stick to the topics that are important to the people around you, even if you don’t personally find them terribly interesting.
Listen more than you talk Listen a lot more. There’s an old Turkish proverb: Listen a 100 times; ponder a thousand times, speak but once. It is great advice on a number of levels. For starters, it’s pretty much impossible to learn anything when you’re the one doing the talking. Being a good listener also has a marked impact on how you will be perceived in comparison to the talkative people around you. Inevitably, it is the quiet but attentive person who is perceived as more astute.
This isn’t new, of course. Despite the seemingly universal acceptance of his wisdom, however, there are an alarming number of people apparently incapable of following it.
Focus on facts and avoid your opinions. We all have opinions, but in a new environment it is always safest to keep them to yourself—even when you are asked for them. Indirect answers such as, “I’m not sure I understand enough about it yet,” or “There seems to be some validity on both sides of the issue,” are great ways to avoid expressing an opinion that may unknowingly alienate you from others.
Use humour carefully. This is my greatest personal challenge. I love to laugh, and I love to share jokes with people. But more than once I’ve found myself saying something that someone else thought crossed a line. The best advice comes from a friend of mine in the HR field: Don’t tell a joke (or forward a joke email), unless it is material that you would be comfortable sharing with your grandmother.
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to business interactions, always err on the side of caution. It’s also important to be aware that these invisible social lines aren’t static—they too can change depending on the nature of your relationship. And the guidelines that you should follow don’t always apply to the people around you. A customer, for example, might launch into a tirade about the wart problem she has on her feet, but this does not mean you should be comfortable reciprocating by telling the customer about your own medical challenges. A boss may confide in you that he or she is having difficulties at home. This does not open the door for you to begin talking about your issues at home.
The ability to connect in the workplace to engage customers, co-workers, employees and bosses is more important than ever in our success and enjoyment at work. The closer we get to each other, however, the more critical it is to be aware of the invisible social lines that can create discomfort and awkwardness—sometimes disaster—when crossed. Lines between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, lines between acceptable and unacceptable conversation topics, lines between candid conversation and conversation that becomes too personal.
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