Help me to be more socially adept in business
October 6, 2011 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How can I become more socially adept in business settings?

I have several friends who are diplomatic and socially adept in business settings, particularly when explaining difficulties, problems, conflicts of interest, etc. to others. They seem to know how to use the right euphemisms to ask for things/state unpleasant truths in diplomatic and skillful ways. One friend phrased this as "managing up" or "pushing back".

I would like to learn these skills. I am generally good at job interviews, public speaking, networking, and other settings where I can present myself in a good light. My weaknesses lie in explaining difficulties, conflicts, making requests, and other situations where I get extremely anxious because I don't know what to say and I have a very deepfear of authority (that I work on in therapy). I don't know how to do this in email, and I have even more difficulty in person. I tend to overshare, be blunt or crude, and generally come across as an oaf.

I suspect that these skills have something to do with social class and having socially skilled parents. I was raised without either and am working hard to overcome these deficits. So please do not tell me to just "be myself" -- I'm trying to work on myself and improve.

I'm not sure if it's a philosophy I need to adopt, a specific set of skills, or what.

Please suggest anything that might be helpful:
- attitudes, skills, ways to learn this skill
- books that might be helpful
- role models I can watch on YouTube videos
- how to think about this problem
- stories of how you recovered from this issue

A few caveats:
- I do not work in a conventional corporate environment, so I don't have a boss. I work as a freelance consultant, in academic environments (where I have a graduate supervisor and department members as stakeholders), and in entrepreneurial environments. So books on how to climb the corporate ladder are less useful.

- I would prefer resources that are related to situations I am likely to encounter, as opposed to examples like Bill Clinton or Obama, famous CEOs, etc.

- Etiquette books don't seem to be helpful, as I'm not looking for advice about weddings, gifts, turning down invitations politely, etc. I want to be polite, of course, but also professional, diplomatic -- and get my point across.

Thank you!
posted by 3491again to Work & Money (8 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
My sister recommended the book Crucial Conversations. It seems that it might be helpful with regard to specific areas that you have identified as weaknesses such as discussing difficulties and conflicts. I just started it, so I can't personally attest to how good it is, but it does provide examples for work-related as well as more personal situations. I think that the basic idea is to provide you with tools to handle difficult conversations calmly and to allow you to get your point across without anger or rancor.
posted by kaybdc at 6:05 PM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh boy. Your predicament is something I have the misfortune of being exposed to: the business world at large and trying to find the best way to maneuver through it. I sympathize, and can only humbly offer the following advice:

BE A RETAARD. Where RETAARD stands for the following:

R epetition
E ngagement
T ranslation
A nticipation
A mnesty
R eflection
D eflection.

I'll get to what this all means in a little bit. As background, I hope it suffices to say that part of my job requires me to interface with the business/corporate realm of managers, administration, COOs, CEOs, various departments, etc. Additionally, I have to attend some social/work functions where I've gotta shmooze and be shmoozed. I'm not a shmoozer. Never have been. But I've learned to become quite adept at such things.

You've already discovered a key element of becoming a RETAARD: you should not accept advice to "be yourself." Moreover, you must not ever concede that you've ever got to "be yourself," or improve, or be something more than you are. This is ridiculous. Instead, view things in such a way as to believe that you've got to be something OTHER than yourself at certain times, where by "certain times" I mean those mind-numbing meetings where your eyes glaze over and your mouth dries out, agape in boredom, or the ball-busting high-pressure wanna-be high-society/big-business social functions with a crappy cover or jazz band and no one dancing but the really good-looking but way-too-young-for-anyone brunette who really isn't dancing with anyone but herself, and you know, you're not entirely convinced she's not crashing the party because the stupid event is being held in a museum for chrissakes, a MUSEUM.

Be a RETAARD (reh-TAAHRD). Slow down. Slow way the hell down. Lower the pitch and amplitude of your voice. Attend to each of the letters, in order.

So first step: slow down. Meaning: always think, and never open your mouth before you think. This includes when you drink and eat, because you should survey the area immediately around you to ensure that it's ok to drink, or eat, or spit out your gum: don't be scarfing down your 50th pizza roll when the CEO is five feet away from you, making his or her rounds.

And don't talk if you don't have to. There is little that ever must be said or decided upon right now, or within the next few minutes. There is little to be gained by volunteering any information about any aspect of your work to anyone, and what little there is to be gained should be carefully thought out in advance and spoken with purpose.

Don't move if you don't have to. Seriously. I think there's something to be said about projecting confidence and power, and presence has a lot to do with it. So does accessibility and openness. If you're sitting, or standing in the same place, people know where to find you. If people are coming to you, instead of the other way around, the perception other people have about you may be positively changed.

Be quiet, but firm. Lower the pitch and volume of your voice. You're not here to spill the beans to the whole world about what's being talked about. You're here to be serious, firm, confident, concerned and private.

Right. So RETAARD. Slow down. And if you absolutely cannot escape social interaction, proceed down RETAARD's letters:

- Repetition. Repeat what was just said to you. No, not out loud or to the other person-- to yourself. You've got to stay on target. "So, 3491again wants help on how to be more socially adept in the business world."

- Engagement. This is a really, really shitty buzzword in the corporate world, but it's a decent word to use for RETAARD's purposes. Engage the other person, and make them feel like they're the only people who matter in your life-- that you're really listening, and you're there for them. "Oh boy. Your predicament is something I have the misfortune of being exposed to..."

- Translation. Here you translate what the other person said to you into your own words-- and this is the only part where you've got to be yourself. This is where you differentiate yourself from everyone else, and where your personality shows. In your own words, repeat back what they said. "Fuck man, I feel your pain. The business world is pizacrap and crocoshit and all this bullshit about navigating the business waters is crap. But if you don't wanna be an ASO and you really wanna know how to be better at this crap is to do this crap."

- Anticipation. An internal process: identify at least two potential outcomes for your social interaction. I say at least two, because when there's more at stake, you've got to go slower and really carefully consider outcomes. "3491again is either going to find some value in what I've got to say, or 3491again will think I'm a verbose, foul-mouthed idiot."

- Amnesty. This should apply to social interactions of greater significance where the person or people you're speaking with are coming to you with significant concerns. Always offer an out. Mitigate their circumstances. Tell them you appreciate the fact that they're sharing their concerns with you, that they're not being blamed, that you're not looking to be punitive, and that they have your confidence. "You're not alone in this-- it's a concern a lot of people have, and maybe everyone should have. I appreciate how humbling it must be to ask for advice and help, having been there myself, but I don't think anyone can criticize you for your goals."

- Reflection. Briefly summarize the topic at hand and consider why they're speaking with you. Repeat it back to them, and look for confirmation and affirmation that they believe you know what they're talking about. "The way I see it, you're looking to be a little more at ease, or better, at business interactions, right? I think I get it, and I can see you've put a good amount of good thinking into this, and that writing it down as an AskMe question is one of the multiple ways you're trying to improve."

- Deflection. If necessary. And in most cases, absolutely necessary. As stated earlier, there is very little that ever must be decided upon right now, or in the immediate future. Tell them to call you later to set up a meeting, or that you'll get in touch with them. And then move on. You can either move on to an entirely different subject, or branch off to discuss a related topic, such as any of the possible forks in Anticipation, or reinforcing your Amnesty points. "I think there's a lot that could be said about this-- how bout we round up and touch base tomorrow? I just wanna make sure that we give this the full attention it deserves, and it looks like I've been taking a lot and I wanna hear more about what you've got to say. Also: this pizza roll I've been holding in my hand is getting really greasy. You like pizza rolls? Hmn. Ok. How bout soap? You like soap? Well lemme tell you a little story about soap..."

You're probably thinking: that's a crapload of stuff to remember, and it sounds like corporate bullshit. You'd be right. But that's the business world. You don't have to remember everything, you've just got to remember one or two things about anything, and remember that you don't have to remember everything: that you can Deflect and look things up and get back to whoever you're speaking with. Start off by remembering any of the above points, and add to that.

And then think about what it's all about: it's not about making decisions right this minute. It's about being socially adept in business settings. It's about showing a little bit of your personality, but more importantly making other people feel like they're more important than you are. It's about being comfortable and putting other people at ease in such settings, and by having something as silly as RETAARD to fall back upon, you'll have something to hold onto when you don't know what to say.

Such business situations are about knowing when to open your mouth, knowing what to say, and knowing what not to say, where the default is saying nothing but Translation, Amnesty, Reflection or Deflection. In other words, adding nothing to what's been said to you but the bare minimum, and essentially parroting back their words. Carefully consider everything you say, and your words will carry weight on their own. Spit out a five billion page screed of words and your words will be worthless.

At any rate, that's all I've got. Hopefully you'll find something you can use. If you wanna talk more about this, shoot me some MeMail, or we can set up a meeting later. Yeah. Yeah. Hey, you ever go to Vegas? Lemme tell you about the best jackpot you'll ever win...

Please note: I mean no offence in using "RETAARD" is an acronym. I mean it as a verb, not as a noun. Also note that when you're at work, everything is business. When you're not a work, a lot of things can be considered business. Never, ever use the power of RETAARD in your personal relationships. You have been warned.
posted by herrdoktor at 6:48 PM on October 6, 2011 [49 favorites]

kaybdc's comment recommends a book that a LOT of business-savvy folks have read and refer to, and has, from what I've been told, a lot to say about how to deal with topics that are difficult to talk about. I've been to enough "leadership" seminars where the book and its points are discussed, and the phrase "crucial conversations" is used often.
posted by herrdoktor at 6:52 PM on October 6, 2011

I have read both Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. I recommend checking both out.
posted by elmay at 7:51 PM on October 6, 2011

This is something you get a lot better at with practice and it is something I learn primarily by observing my bosses at work. Which does not help you so much as you don't have bosses who cc you into emails and who you can observe in meetings or on the phone.

What you really should do, in addition to the suggestions made by others, is cultivate one or two mentoring type relationships so you have somebody you can call and say - got situation/conversation/meeting X coming up, not sure how to approach it...have you got any thoughts or suggestions?
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:32 AM on October 7, 2011

In addition to the resources already suggested, I would recommend Emotional Intelligence at Work. It devotes a chapter specifically to developing those types of communication skills, and it contains a lot of practical advice.
posted by Breav at 9:55 AM on October 7, 2011

Words that Work by Frank Luntz is a goldmine of information regarding communication.
While a lot of it is geared towards political communication, his advice can be applied to a business context. There is a chapter on business communications.
Excellent read.
posted by jacobean at 7:10 AM on October 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! Please keep them coming. :)
posted by 3491again at 11:07 PM on October 31, 2011

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