by Janet Hawkins
0Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles that provide tips for better communication.
As a child, you knew you had to speak up to be heard. You also were encouraged to look at the person you were speaking to, weren’t you?
It’s a good bet that you never addressed your parents by their first names. Or always said please when you wanted something and thank you when you got it. Were you told never to share family business outside the family? What about talking to strangers?
These are all rules of engagement – of conversational engagement. Without knowing it your parents gave you, at a young age, the framework with which you structure your conversations in both your personal and professional lives today.
Each day you interact with others and never give your exchange a second thought. But knowing the rules of engagement on the job can make the difference between a successful career and a lackluster one.
These rules weren’t meant to be broken
"All organizations create rules for conversation," says Dr. Gary Evans, consultant and professor of Communication at Eastern Michigan University. "They may not be posted on a wall and they may not be articulated or verbalized fully, but they’re subliminally understood."
Evans refers to the rules of everyday conversation. The rules that help us find and keep a job, build relationships, and get what we want or need. "Culture establishes these rules over time," says Evans. "We learn normal social behavior first. This allows us to communicate with each other in a general sense that is acceptable to everyone. When we move into interpersonal relationships we begin to create our own set of rules."
When in doubt, wait it out
In new situations, like a job change or employer change, it’s important to take things slowly at first; that’s because there’s a lot to learn. For instance, should you tell your new coworkers how dumb you think their current practices are? How much of your personal life should you share with your new colleagues?
"If we’re wise when we find ourselves in new, unfamiliar situations, we revert back to our social rules, those practices that take us into a cautious, more general way of communicating with others," says Evans. "If you find yourself in a new job or working with new people, you need to listen and watch others more. Give yourself some time to assess and understand these new conversational rules. It’ll be time well spent."
Seek out support
Many organizations encourage mentors to help employees advance in their career. Mentors may also help a new employee acclimate to their new surroundings. "Mentors can really teach us about appropriate behavior within an organization," says Evans. "Their value to a new employee can never be overestimated." Mentorship is a two-way street. A good mentor will look to the new employee for insight into organizational dysfunction.
Recognition is the first step
Understanding that communication rules differ among employers and employees is the first step toward recognizing the rules in any situation. For example, many organizations now have formal sexual harassment policies and non-discrimination practices that further structure the way we communicate. So before you share that slightly off-color joke, remember what your parents taught you. Be cautious around strangers and think before you speak.