The skills you use to navigate relationships with your peers are very different than the skills used when communicating with teachers, employers, or other figures of authority. Having the ability to distinguish between professional and personal worlds, and learning how to interact with others in both environments, is critical to your success as you apply for jobs and interact with professionals in your field.
Many people have problems switching from the super-casual vernacular used with their friends to a more professional tone when in an academic or work environment. The problems I have seen in my work as a professor have centered on the misuse of another person’s time and a too-casual demeanor. Yet, these social mistakes can be avoided with some thoughtful self-reflection and by practicing prosocial responses. Here are a few things to think about:
- Think before you speak about the timeliness and relevance of your question
- Appreciate the value of others’ time
- Be on time and prepared with “I messages” and geared up to learn and listen
- Err on the side of a formal demeanor
Think before you speak about the timeliness and relevance of your question. Most professionals are busy people, working long hours and juggling many balls at one time. Their priorities and yours may be quite different. For example, when I arrive in a classroom I am busy turning on the instructional unit and projector and beginning to start class, it is not a good time to talk with my students because I can’t pay attention and I might not be able to start class on time, making other people wait. The other common problem is when a student raises a hand in class and asks a question specific to an individual experience and not applicable to the rest of the class. In my mind these behaviors indicate that one person believes that his or her individual need is more important than those of the larger group. It is frustrating and can lead to ill will. Before asking a question, think about whether it is the most appropriate time. Is your teacher/employer distracted by another task? Are other people waiting to speak and your topic is unrelated to a current topic? Were you absent, late, talking to a friend or texting and missed information already presented? Do you already have the information in the syllabus, a handout, or through another source? If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions you should wait and address your need at a more appropriate time.
Appreciate the value of others’ time. Always assume that everyone’s time is valuable and that you should do your best not to misuse resources. When approaching a teacher or supervisor always ask if it is a good time to speak with him or her and briefly explain the nature of your problem in no more than two sentences. Make sure that you provide your name and your relationship to him or her. (“I am in your LifeSpan class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1pm” or “I work in the downtown branch of the facility.”). Follow the same guidelines when emailing or telephoning for an appointment. Always thank someone for their time after they speak with you.
Be on time and prepared with “I messages” and geared up to learn and listen. When meeting with a teacher or supervisor make sure you are prepared and on time. Have all of your materials together and within easy access. Speak clearly and in full sentences, and make eye contact. Use “I” messages when explaining a problem (i.e. “I am confused by the requirements for this report” instead of “This report is too confusing”). Have specific questions, instead of voicing feelings of disappointment or anger. For example, “I really studied for this exam. You just grade too hard” is not as effective as “Could you help me understand how I could better prepare for your exams.” Be clear in your needs and offer solutions if there is a problem to solve. Always keep an open mind and assume you have something to learn instead of something to tell. Be polite to others; listen to the responses of others instead of waiting for your turn to speak again.
Error on the side of a formal demeanor. A demeanor that is too casual can lead others to see you in a negative way. It could imply that you do not take the situation as seriously as needed. In an employment situation always look at the climate of the place in which you work for cues on behavior. You can see how to dress, the tone of voice to use, the level of noise expected, and how to address others by watching those around you. The same can be said for educational environments. If you are ever unsure of your response it is better to be a little too formal than to be too casual. Avoid the use of slang and cursing, both verbally and in writing.
Social skills are important in the academic and professional arena. In fact, researchers from Boise State University (Landrum & Harrold, 2003) found that many employers, at least in the field of psychology, focused on soft skills, or those that were social in nature, rather than hard skills when looking for employees or talking about the top qualities of their workers. Social skills allow you to provide others with a positive image of you. Prosocial behavior elicits trust from others and makes you appear confident and competent. You can improve on your social skills through hard work, practice and through a change in your thought processes, such as thinking positively or goal-setting.
Sources and other references for social skills:
Landrum, R. E., & Harrold, R. (2003). What employers want from psychology graduates. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 131-133.
Ritzer, D. R. & Sleigh, M. J. (2013, May/June). Beyond the classroom: Developing students’ professional social skills, 26(5). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2004/september-04/beyond-the-classroomdeveloping-students-professional-social-skills.html
Schuetz, H. (2011, June). Acquiring social skills – the key to professional success. TC World: Magazine for International Information Management. Retrieved from http://www.tcworld.info/tcworld/business-culture/article/acquiring-social-skills-the-key-to-professional-success/