Building better professional relationships

Learn to communicate in a professional manner, while building strong relationships.


You know how it starts. You have that snarky e-mail that comes in on a Friday at the end of the business day, and the tone is a little off, a little less than positive. You reread the e-mail several times, checking for clarity and wondering if this person doesn’t know how to communicate professionally or is just an idiot in a suit. The kicker? The e-mail requires a response. So how do you communicate in a way that is always professional, but goes one step beyond and builds a stronger relationship simultaneously?

This is only one of many opportunities that professionals are offered on a daily basis to improve their business relationships. Let’s look at a few, beginning with that snarky e-mail.

1. Practice diplomacy. Often, a response to a specific query takes time to research, think about, and compose. While a good rule of thumb is to respond to all communications within 24 hours—48 hours if you are traveling on business—sometimes you need to buy some time. In such cases, sending a quick “thanks for your e-mail—I should have a thoughtful response to you in the next day or so” will acknowledge that you are waiting for input or feedback before moving forward. When responding, ignore snarky or emotionally charged aspects of the e-mail. De-escalate confrontations and focus on the facts that are in play.

2. Proactively communicate more frequently—not just when you need something. If every e-mail or side conversation you initiate comes with: “Hey, you know I’ve been meaning to catch you because I need a …”, then the people you communicate with will gradually begin to avoid you because all you represent is more work for them. Why else would you contact someone? This is why we read vastly and deeply in our field and in business in relation to our work. Conversations about what is developing in our field, specific developments with our competition, and even tangential matters in policy and science are great fodder for continually communicating.

3. Avoid complaining. Spending time in the negative has the amazing ability to pull everyone down with you. And the purpose of that? Really, what is to gain from bringing down the ideas and work of your colleagues? My suggestion is that if something is truly bothering you, voice it to those who can do something about it or keep it to yourself. The goal of any organization is to continuously move forward in positive ways, so part of your job it to be part of the solution resolving what concerns you.

4. Be a straight-shooter. This one is related to No. 3. If you have a concern or issue with a particular colleague, such as a person in your organization, a client, or a person within your larger field, address the issue with that particular person. Often, the best conversations and strongest relationships are built on what was once perceived as a problem. Going directly to the person who has the central knowledge about the issue creates transparency and opens the door for an honest dialogue. If you do this before talking with others, you can avoid creating unnecessary gossip. Nothing positive comes from office gossip; gossip can be a career killer.

5. Know your boundaries. Everyone has personal space boundaries and off-limits topics they prefer not to discuss. In building business relationships within your organization and your larger professional sphere, always keep in mind what you will talk about and what you won’t. It’s good to armor yourself with phrases that allow you to gracefully bow out of a conversation and create a space for the listener to save face at the same time. Phrases such as, “I’m not prepared to share on that just yet” or “That’s something I’m still working on, so I’m not quite ready to share at this time” with a smile can alleviate a lot of backpedaling and miscommunication.

6. Listen. This is the key to all strong professional relationships. Think about it: When was the last time you had someone ask good questions of you and you really listened, reflected on what you said, and then probed, asking more interesting questions? Unfortunately, these conversations are rare. Part of listening is being truly present during the conversation, finding commonality between you and the person to whom you are speaking, and following up. If your conversation leads to information seeking, creating connections, and providing more insight, then by all means, follow up. And do so within 24 hours. This responsiveness, this “listening” that results in positive action, is one of the best ways to create a richer, more sustainable professional partnership with your colleagues. In the end, there is no business without relationships, the kind of professional alliances that feed our curiosities, help strengthen our careers, and enlighten how we think about our work. Relationships matter, and so does the communication we use to foster them.

Smith is the department chair of the Curriculum, Language, and Literacy program at Concordia University Chicago. She has more than 12 years of experience in adult teaching and training and has published feature articles on mentoring and training in Consulting-Specifying Engineer. Smith also provides research and training services to firms in the buildings industry in a variety of career skills topics ranging from networking to public presentations.

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