10 Things Your Mom Should Have Taught You About Communication

Business people talking in meeting
Business people talking in meeting

Since moms get blamed for so many things that go wrong in the world, we might as well point an accusatory finger at them for the poor communication habits of their offspring. Who else besides dear ole mom would cover for you if you picked up these bad habits on your own?

In case you've misplaced her communication checklist, here it is:

  1. Return a greeting. When someone speaks to you on the street, in the hallway, or as you enter a room or meeting, speak, nod, wave, tap dance, or otherwise acknowledge that you've heard them. Respond!

  • Respond when someone asks you a question. Wish I had the proverbial nickel for every time I'd emailed someone about a situation with several questions and had them answer all but one. Chalk the failure up to carelessness. Yet it's still frustrating and nonproductive when not answering necessitates a follow-up email.
  • Excuse yourself from a group discussion. Whether you've joined a group at a networking event, or you're chatting with others while waiting for a meeting to start, or you're standing in a circle talking to colleagues in the cafeteria -- when you decide to make your exit, excuse yourself. Make a simple comment such as: "Got to get back to work." "Excuse me please, but I need to make a call." "Hate to miss this story, but I have a project waiting." Just slipping away unnoticed says, "I'm unimportant and childlike."
  • Look at people when they are talking to you. Not past them. Not around them. Not at your cell phone or iPad. Just because you are not seeing them doesn't mean they are not seeing your eyes darting around and away. Inattentiveness says, "You're boring me. I'm looking for better alternatives." This is not a message that wins friends and influences bosses.
  • Apologize when you say something insensitive. What's insensitive? Your listener will let you know. Apologies cost nothing but ego. You can always assure others that your intention was not to harm, embarrass, or hurt. But that does not erase the need to apologize if the other person feels offended, and apologies definitely display goodwill and good manners.
  • Introduce yourself to people you don't know rather than waiting to be introduced. At a meeting or social gathering, demonstrate confidence and your openness by taking the lead to introduce yourself. Always waiting for others to approach you, introduce themselves, and strike up a conversation with you either demonstrates extreme shyness or arrogance. Neither trait attracts others.
  • Offer to introduce others to each other when they join your group. If you're talking to someone and a third person joins you, introduce the other two people to each other and make an explanatory statement about each so they can quickly connect in the conversation. For example: "Katy, do you know Rog? (turning to Rog) Katy's on the marketing team for the Zipler launch. (Turning to Katy) Rog and I used to work together in IT. He's the guy that you definitely want to know if you haven't mastered that EPOC software. He's a wizard with that."
  • Don't interrupt or talk over other people. Research says that women "overlap" someone's speech to show empathy or support and that men interrupt more often to control the conversation. Whatever the reason -- positive or negative intention -- people aren't mind readers. Overlapping and interrupting can be irritating.
  • Don't monopolize. Listen as much or more than you talk. Someone who talks too much soon becomes known as an arrogant bore. By definition, conversation should be a two-way interaction. Otherwise, you're delivering a monologue or a lecture better left to the classroom. Just as coworkers learn to share conference rooms and equipment through a formal booking system, colleagues appreciate those who share the floor in meetings and informal conversations.
  • Don't continually change the subject to topics of interest only to you. If you get bored with a topic, change it "on your watch." That is, make the change just after you yourself have spoken or introduced a topic. Or if someone else has started a topic and the discussion seems to be winding down, pause before tossing out a different topic. Otherwise, always yanking the conversational string back to something of interest to you comes across as self-centered.
  • So what if your mom didn't teach you these communication basics? Stop blaming her, shape up, and put them into practice before the communication snafus catch up with you, stall your career, and damage your social life.