By Laura N. Schram
Inside Higher Ed, April 8, 2019.
Laura N. Schram highlights six actions you can take to improve your professional relationships.
Despite our relentless career advice to network and conduct informational interviews, in my experience, graduate students either cringe or lament past failures when they hear these urgings. When I ask graduate students what the word “networking” calls to mind, they reliably say things like “fake,” “awkward” and “phony”; some have even used stronger words, such as “extractive” and “disgusting.”
Unlike conversations with our loved ones, we’ve all had awkward conversations or shallow small talk in professional settings that feel inauthentic. These negative experiences of poor communication lead us to avoid professional conversations that could help us to learn and foster fulfilling relationships in our professional lives.
Positive communication scholars have a lot to teach us about how we can make our professional communications informative and enjoyable interactions. In this column, I draw on an excellent model from The Art of Positive Communication by Julien C. Mirivel, including insights from Mirivel’s work with Ryan Fuller extending the model to relational talk at work, to help you effectively engage in positive career conversations. I share this model with the graduate students in my Designing Your Life courseto help reframe common negative perceptions about professional networking. Below, I spotlight six actions that you can take in your interpersonal interactions to improve your career conversations.
Greeting creates human contact.
Mirivel and Fuller stress that the presence or absence of a greeting is especially significant in workplaces, from hospitals to educational settings. The presence of a greeting supports student learning, correlates with patient satisfaction in health-care settings and is associated with more collegial relationships at work.
Greeting also starts career conversations off on the right foot. If you are at a professional event where you know you want to connect with folks — like a departmental workshop or a reception at your professional association’s conference — start your conversations with a greeting. If the person you initiate conversation with returns your greeting by asking how you are doing (a common greeting), respond by sharing something positive rather than something negative, like “Busy.”
If you’re requesting an informational interview from someone you do not know via email or LinkedIn to learn about your diverse career options, start with a salutation (e.g., “Dear so-and-so”) and a first sentence that conveys a warm greeting, such as “I hope this message finds you well.” The absence of these simple greetings will make a cold email making a request of someone sound rude. Similarly, when you meet in person, don’t immediately launch in to your list of questions. Greet your interviewee with a smile, make eye contact, shake hands (or extend a similar culturally comfortable gesture for you and your interviewee), and thank them graciously for their time. The research shows that these small moments of positive greeting will establish collegiality at the very beginning of your professional conversations and start you off on the path to connecting.
Asking discovers the unknown.
Questions and answers structure our everyday communications, and if you’ve read anything on networking or informational interviews, you know that these conversations are all about asking questions. Asking powerful questions can help us to discover insights we don’t already know about ourselves and others. Career conversations enable us to discover what we don’t know about a range of topics, such as information about someone else’s research or a career field of potential interest to us.
For positive communication, Mirivel suggests that we use open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are those that can be responded to with a yes, no or specific response. Examples of closed-ended questions in the career conversation context are questions like, “How long have you been in your career?” or “If you could do things all over again, would you choose the same career path?”
There is nothing wrong with these questions, and you can certainly ask some closed-ended questions, especially as follow-up clarification questions that naturally flow from your conversation. But Mirivel believes that open-ended questions allow you to discover another person more deeply than closed-ended questions, because they give freedom to the respondent. He suggests several open-ended questions you can practice when you meet new people. I tweaked two of them to be suitable for career conversations: “What experiences in your professional life have shaped you?” and “What people have affected your professional development and growth?” Even better, do your research on your interviewee in advance and develop a few open-ended questions that show you have thought carefully about your conversation partner’s distinct background and experiences.
It’s also valuable to know what not to ask in such conversations. Graduate students associate networking with words like “extractive” and “manipulative” because some folks do exploit others for their expertise and time without ever reciprocating. As organizational psychology scholar Adam Grant’s work has shown, those “takers” burn bridges in their professional networks. Questions not to ask include things like, “Do you have any job openings at the moment, and would you be willing to refer me to the hiring manager?” This is a taker approach to networking.
Complimenting affects the self.
What others say to us and about us affects our sense of self and even our identity. Mirivel and Fuller note that, in a range of workplace studies, compliments impact behavior in tangible ways. In the workplace, complimenting employees leads to positive workplace culture, greater trust between managers and employees, and increased job satisfaction.
In your career conversations, keep your ears open to listen for ways to authentically compliment your conversation partner. As mentioned above, many graduate students find networking fake, and I am not urging you to be inauthentic. So how do you do this in a genuine way? In any professional conversation, you can compliment an accomplishment that your conversation partner just told you about by saying, for example, “I’m so impressed by the way you …” or “I admire that you …” If an accomplishment doesn’t come up naturally in the conversation, you could praise the values you see enacted in the way your interviewee does her work or inhabits various roles.
In an informational interview, you can think about this in advance. Typically, you only invite someone to an informational interview when you’ve already done some research in advance about them, so you should already know several things that impress you about your interviewee, such as achievements, publications, relationships, intellectual commitments and so on. You should at minimum compliment your interviewee by remarking on how considerate they were for taking the time to meet with you by saying something like, “You’ve been so helpful by generously sharing your time and wisdom with me.”
Disclosing deepens relationships.
All of us Brené Brown fans know the power of vulnerability. “Self-disclosure is the act of revealing private information,” Mirivel noted, arguing that the communication scholarship is very clear on the fact that disclosure deepens relationships. While, of course, we intuitively know this from our close personal relationships, the research shows that disclosure even plays a role in the workplace, both relationally and institutionally. Self-disclosure creates trust and reciprocity in the workplace, such as between managers and employees or professors and students.
Positive disclosure is authentic, honest and personal. So when you meet someone new and interesting in a professional setting, besides asking questions, do not hesitate to disclose a bit about yourself — your professional or personal interests, scholarly projects and the like. In an informational interview, you are primarily there to learn from your interviewee, so do not keep the focus on yourself. But a bit of self-disclosure will help to develop trust even in an informational interview. Appropriate disclosure in an informational interview would include sharing very briefly at the start about your own experiences, skills and/or central commitments that led you to reach out to that particular interviewee.
Encouraging gives support.
Encouraging means, in the words of Mirivel and Fuller, “to give courage — to provide the strength and support to another person so that they can enact their potential.” Mirivel outlines three forms of encouraging communication: instrumental support, emotional support and esteem support.
Instrumental support in a professional communication can be as simple as giving advice. In an informational interview, you are by definition seeking advice, so if things go well, you’ll likely receive lots of instrumental support in the form of expert advice from the interaction. However, you can also intentionally create opportunities to give instrumental support in networking conversations. You are a budding scholar in your own right and may have advice (resources, referrals to colleagues, article suggestions) that you can share as part of your career conversations.
The second form of support — emotional support — is any communication that reduces emotional distress. Positive career conversations can also become a form of mutual emotional support as you exchange new and exciting information about your shared professional interests. That generates positive emotions — satisfaction, inspiration — and can reduces stress for you around your career exploration.
Finally, esteem support, similar to complimenting, is communication that enhances your conversation partner’s self-esteem. You can offer esteem support to others in your professional network by being specific in letting them know how they have helped you. You can do this during an exchange or even in a follow-up message after a generative conversation to report back what specifically (a resource, next step, piece of critical advice) was helpful to you. I occasionally receive messages months after an interaction with a student reporting back how I was helpful to them, and this has always deepened my professional relationship with that student.
Listening transcends differences.
Asking questions creates possibilities for us to discover the unknown, but effective listening is crucial for truly unlocking the potential of your questions. If you are deeply listening in career conversations, you won’t be going down a laundry list of questions, checking each one off as if accomplishing a to-do list. In my current career stage, I am often the interviewee in informational interviews, and this is the most common mistake I’ve seen graduate students who’ve interviewed me make. They come prepared with a set of questions, which is great, but they stick so rigidly to those questions that the conversation feels stilted.
With effective listening, you put the focus on your conversation partner, ask thoughtful follow-up questions and invite your partner to expand on interesting points. In an informational interview, that will mean skipping questions on your prepared list if your interviewee has already covered that topic.
With ineffective listening , you frequently shift the focus of the conversation back to yourself, concentrate on your next question while your partner is still talking or rigidly stick to a set of prepared questions rather than allowing the conversation to go in the direction your interviewee is leading you. Mirivel argues that listening allows us to transcend differences, because when we do it well, we connect more deeply and co-create a shared experience in our conversation.
In short, positive communication is an art form. These six theory-to-practice behaviors can help you to better communicate in your professional life and lead to your enjoyment, rather than dread, of career conversations.
Laura N. Schram is director of professional and academic development at the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium — an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.