Seven “Soft Skills” to Help You Navigate Business Conversations
by Vicky Oliver
Adapted from “301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions”
The Wall Street Journal recently identified a new trend in business schools: courses in “soft skills” such as casual communication and showing respect. Many employees, especially Gen Y and Millennial workers who have grown up in the age of digital communication, lack some of the basics, such as knowing how to carry on casual conversation, or knowing how to back out of difficult or potentially damaging dialogue. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Be enthusiastic and act real.
In any business setting, when someone asks “How are you?” pause before blurting out a one-word reply. People love a real answer. And if you can deliver it with enthusiasm, it’s even better. So, “I’m doing really well, thank you, and I’m so happy to be at this conference,” is a great option. If you’re not feeling great, look the person in the eye and fake it. “Hard to complain on this beautiful day. I’m really looking forward to chipping away at my to-do list.”
Create chemistry where there’s none.
The CEO is standing next to you at a company picnic, and you’re a new hire with absolutely nothing to offer him in the way of snappy repartee. Don’t waste this moment. Look him in the eye and ask him about a hobby you know he’s interested in (you can Google him beforehand). If you know nothing about him at all, find a nonwork-related question that starts with how, what, or why, such as, “What was the most exciting part of your day today?” Or “What do you think about the show Undercover Boss?” An open-ended question can’t be answered in one word. Steer clear of work-related topics, unless he brings it up.
Avoid badmouthing the company.
You’re at a business dinner and a client is on a tirade about your company. Or you’re in the break room and a coworker is loudly bashing her supervisor. What do you do? Listen quietly to his or her rant, and when it’s done, simply restate what the person has said–this is called reflexive listening. “So, you’re disappointed with our turnaround time on your project,” or “You don’t feel the boss is listening to you.” When they nod, change the subject, or in the case of the client, thank him and tell him you will share this information with colleagues when you get back to the office.
Learn to manage bores and talkaholics.
There’s nothing worse than getting stuck next to a bore or someone who blathers on endlessly at a business lunch or at a client networking event. Listen politely for a minute or two, then see if you can enliven the conversation by asking a question that makes the subject broader or deeper. For example, a story about her child’s chess victory could lead you to ask about the “chess gene,” the history of chess, the merits of playing electronically, or about the mom’s own experience with chess. When you’ve had enough and need to exit, just be direct: “I’ve enjoyed our chat [big smile], but I feel as if I need to mingle a bit! I look forward to circling back to you later.”
Don’t be a joker.
Workplace humor can be risky, because so many jokes offend. There’s a fine line between funny and bad taste. Don’t cross it. Leave the ribald jokes and nasty barbs to others. Don’t get into a huff if someone says something inappropriate. Give him the benefit of the doubt. But don’t add to it by coming back with a sarcastic comment, which can leave a bitter aftertaste and make you seem mean-spirited.
Avoid the gossip swill.
Gossips know everything about everything, and workers are drawn to them like paparazzi to movie stars. But don’t succumb to a gossip’s prattle or soon you’ll be the one who’s gossiped about–and that can make you look unprofessional. When a supervisor sees employees gossiping, she may think these workers have too much time on their hands. If a gossip tries to corner you, suggest a change of topic. “Hey, how about those Knicks?” Or excuse yourself with, “I’ve got some serious work I need to get back to–catch you later!”
Master your mouth.
Here are a few basic soft skills for communicating that will serve you well. Speak clearly, and don’t speak too much (4 minutes is the max). Don’t interrupt. Watch for cues from the speaker, and if it’s a serious topic, deal seriously with it. Don’t talk about yourself. Don’t lose your temper. Be courteous. Never criticize others behind their backs. Stick to subjects of general interest. By the way, always avoid taboo topics, which include: sex, politics, religion, sexual orientation, meds, pregnancy, age, firings, and death.
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Vicky Oliver has written five bestselling career development books in a row, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions and the newly published The Millionaire’s Handbook: How to Look and Act Like a Millionaire, Even If You’re Not. She lives in Manhattan, where she helps people turn around their careers and their lives.