Practical Ideas to Keep Workplace Relationships Satisfying

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  • Date Written/Produced: 1/2010
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  • Skill Level: Introductory Skill Level

Workplace relationships are complex. Each employee brings their unique self to work. Their background, perspective, emotional triggers, and working style. Add to this the dynamics of power relations, and the fact that often workplace communication now takes place at our computer keyboards rather than face-to-face.

With all that we juggle in the workplace, it’s no wonder the stress of just getting along can often dramatically affect how much we like our job.

It's important to remember that you and your co-workers also share some important commonalities.

Needs for respect, contribution, acknowledgment and appreciation are common human needs in the workplace. A need to accomplish specific goals and fulfill certain dreams may also be part of the mix. And the need for belonging often surfaces when people are engaging in workplace fun and banter.

Even with the best of intentions, we may engage in communication that keeps these needs from being met – for ourselves or our co-workers. To keep your workplace relationships – and your job – satisfying, consider avoiding some of these common communication mistakes:

1. Speaking to the Boss or Co-Workers Instead of the Person Whose Behavior has Triggered Unpleasant Feelings in You

“Sherry is so rude,” we may say to our office mate. Commonly referred to as gossip, this type of communication often connects with one person or people at the expense of someone else.

When we jump on someone's gossip train we begin to create “enemy images” of the person we're talking about - we put people in boxes or label them. Neither is likely to contribute to a harmonious workplace.

Unfortunately, when we hold our perceptions as truth (in this case, the label of “rude”) without hearing the other person's experience, we add to the separateness we are already experiencing.

We often gossip when we are uncomfortable telling our truth directly to the person involved. This could be because we don't know how to tell them without getting angry, we're afraid of their response, or we’re worried how they'll hear the message.

As an antidote to gossip, we may choose to speak our truth directly using observations, feelings, needs and a clear request. 

2. Taking Other Peoples' Words Personally

Any time someone is communicating to us, their message is about the person's needs and not about us. When we think the message is about us, it’s easy to become defensive.

Listen for the need beneath the message. “I need you to only receive clients in your zip code.” Translation — “You'd like to know that we are working together as a team and I am playing by the same rules as you?”

3. Stating an Evaluation as a Fact

For example, “She doesn't do anything around here.”

Instead check it out: “When I asked if you would be willing to complete the report by 5:00 p.m. because I had an emergency, and I heard you say, 'No problem' and the following day the report was not completed, I became confused. I'd like clarification. Can you tell me what your understanding was of our conversation?” 

4. Not Stating a Clear Request

“I need you to go to the meeting at 10:00 a.m.,” sounds like a clear request to many of us. What makes it unclear is that we are confusing needs and requests.

Requests connect what I want from someone. Here's an example: “I need support in this meeting at 10:00 a.m. Are you willing to join me?” (The last sentence is the request.)

5. Making Demands Instead of Requests

“You must be there at 10:00 a.m. and if you don't show up, don't bother coming to work tomorrow.”

When we make requests, our intention is to ask for what we want without being wedded to the response that we would like. “I'm uncomfortable doing this alone and really need help. Will you meet me at 10:00 a.m. to discuss how we can work together as a team?”

If the response is “no”, we willingly find other ways to meet our needs for support.

6. Conveying Our Anxiety as an Attack

When we’ve engaged in workplace communication and we are feeling anxious, fearful or concerned and we are not conscious of those feelings or do not acknowledge them either to ourselves or out loud, the fear may come out in a tone that is interpreted as an attack.

Example: We may ask a question without any vulnerability first — “What did you do that for?”

Here's another way to respond: “I feel anxious and want clarification. I was remembering an agreement to call the client only after we had talked to George first. Was that your understanding as well?”

7. Listening With One Ear

At work we're often distracted, juggling several things at the same time. People want to be heard and know that their needs matter.

If someone's message is taking longer than we'd like, or it's not a time that works for us to listen, we can speak our truth about this. Here's one way: “I'm torn — I want to hear what you have to say and I have five things on my plate at this moment. Can we meet over lunch to talk about this? Or, can you give me the reader's digest version?”

Another possibility may be: “I understand how much you want me to hear the background to this story and I'm really rushed right now. Can you tell me what you'd like from me in telling me the story so that I can support you in a way you'd like?”

Workplace Relationships Can Be Intense

You may work in a field where life and death decisions are being made moment-to-moment, or it may just seem like every decision is a matter of life or death.

When communication matters and working together is crucial for getting the job done, you may want to slow down in order to understand each other and connect. In the slowing down, both quality and efficiency are enhanced and once there is connection, the thinking, planning and doing all seem to fall into place.

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