The first Monday of each month, I dust off a favorite post from the Bennis Inc Blog archives and give you another chance to enjoy the wit and wisdom that’s been shared. Enjoy this month’s treasure – and if it inspires you – be sure to share it with family and friends!
During the steps along my career path, I’ve encountered some truly great communicators who were friendly, organized and a pleasure to work with. As with any balance to life, I have also encountered a memorable few who were quite the opposite – impatient, rude and condescending. I used to take negative communication very personally, wondering what I could have done to make it a more pleasant experience, but have since reconciled that it had little to do with me. I wasn’t giving the person the answer they wanted (maybe I wasn’t the right contact to address their request or maybe it simply couldn’t be done). And because of this, they felt as though they could treat me with less respect or professionalism than someone who could offer them immediate solutions.
I continue to encounter similar styles of communication from time to time and it really grates on me. I believe that character is best demonstrated by how you treat those who can do nothing for you. Therefore, these incidences are a reflection of a character flaw that many people may be unaware they exhibit. I’m sure I am not exempt from this – a lapse in my communication may have left someone else feeling brushed off or belittled at one point or another. In an effort to put an end to unprofessional communication, I want to examine the following key points to shed light on why this is such a critical problem:
The importance of always being professional
It’s a small world. We all know the meaning of this phrase as we have likely had the experience of running into contacts again and again through similar circles or completely unrelated circumstances. This is a reminder to me every day that my reputation is my most valuable business asset. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, you can’t afford to burn bridges if you want to be successful in your career. Nothing slows down business growth faster. The importance of always being professional when communicating with customers or vendors is realizing that you may very likely have to deal with them again. Don’t ignore this important lesson! Most of the unprofessional communicators I’ve had to deal with have popped up in my life again, needing information or services from me – often with their tail tucked between their legs.
Identifying the subtle negatives
Sometimes the worst communication experiences are hard to identify because they’re subtle, yet leave you with an overall feeling of hurt, frustration or anger. It may be hard to pinpoint the exact reasons the conversation was so unpleasant, but the feeling it leaves you with is real nonetheless. The subtle negatives I’ve most often identified have involved someone exerting their power or position to make me feel dumb or incorrect about an answer I have provided. Another common subtle negative is someone being bossy or aggressive in their tone and in the type of services they demand. In less subtle situations, I’ve had people outright yell at me, hang up the phone or threaten me in various ways (chalk this up to some good old political campaign experience). Most often negative communication can be identified in someone’s tone and word choice. Even if you have something negative you must communicate – and this does happen – there are various ways to still make it a positive communication experience overall. There’s no excuse.
Letting someone know when they’re being unprofessional
This is a difficult subject to breach. No one wants to directly confront someone else about their attitude or negativity because it can be, well…scary. We’re more willing to put up with the unprofessionalism and belittlement than we are willing to tell someone they’re just being rude. The risk is that we end up looking rude in return or that we anger them even more and the communication further declines. If the negative communication is subtle and you’re not sure if they even know they’re coming across this way, it’s important to handle the situation softly, but directly. Let them know that it’s how they’re making you feel rather than accusing them of being outright mean. No one can argue with how you feel and hopefully even if they don’t want to recognize that their actions are causing this, they will at least be professional enough to make an effort to change. On the other extreme, if someone is being unprofessional to the point of yelling or insulting you, then you must also address this directly, but more firmly. Identify specific examples in which their communication is unacceptable (swearing, yelling and hanging up a phone are never acceptable in my mind) and let them know that you will have to cut off further communication if they can’t approach the situation more professionally. Hopefully such instances are rare, but it’s important to know how to speak up to put and end to it.
They key concept worth taking away from all of this is that character is best demonstrated by how you treat those who can do nothing for you. Negativity is never acceptable even if you realize you’re “only” dealing with an office administrator, assistant or intern. Most often, these are the gatekeepers for who you really want to be talking to. As I said before, it’s a small world, so be sure to be kind and professional to everyone you encounter. It truly takes no more (maybe even less) effort than it does to be rude and when the world connects you with them again you’ll be glad you have a friend, not a burnt bridge, to work with.