Lessons Learned from 'How to Talk to Anyone at Work'

Posted by Michael Bailey on March 04, 2022 · 7 mins read

I value my public library near my apartment a lot. It's a more productive area to hang out than something like a bar, and I can do everything from print stuff, go over papers, read or, at one point, listen to a dude threaten a PECO employee's life. At one point recently with family I went to a bookstore and picked my three most interesting books. All three were available in my library system.

I have weird taste in books. My genres basically go: russian cultural history (going to go out on a limb and say nobody wants me to write about this, particularly now), non-fiction, or professional development. I don't have much time to read, so I'm fairly selective when I do. In this case, let's talk about the cheesy professional development books I read now! In this post, I'm covering some of my favorite points from How to Talk to Anyone at Work: 72 Little Tricks for Big Success Communicating on the Job by Leil Lowndes, which I read a few months ago. Still worth reading if you get the chance, as I'm only covering a small subset in my own terms. A great deal is paraphrased or restructured and entire sections are not even referenced.

Focusing on what Leil refers to the as the "five C's"

These would be:

  • Confidence - Flat out, I've never struggled with this much compared to colleagues suffering from imposter syndrome, anxiety, etc. The fact that I started a small blog is an indication of this. I think I'm relatively well adjusted in my abilities and pitfalls.
  • Caring - I never convey caring well. I'm militant with time, and showing you care requires time. Many who've taken support positions have also taken a nihilistic approach to caring in the office as slick people feign caring to accelerate their interests/tickets. The key for caring in the workplace to me is to remove the strict transactional nature of work and remember everyone's ultimately human, but it's something I struggle in.
  • Clarity - Everyone in engineering is told repeatedly, endlessly, to be clear in how they communicate, so this wasn't particularly new to me.
  • Credibility - I'm okay at this, but I've been "confidently wrong" on a few (generally inconsequential) occasions, and that can crush credibility.
  • Coexistence - In particular, with difficult people. This is something I've traditionally been terrible with.

Leil goes in a little bit about how to manage the five C's and how, but they were material as I worked on communicating better in what areas I was lacking and improving in. It creates something measurable for me to balance.

Refrain from Hit-and-Run Praise

This is a fairly simple one, and not unique to this book. Interpreting this to code-land, that's something like "thanks for reviewing my merge request" becoming "thanks for reviewing my MR, particularly as quickly as you did. It helped me get some pretty key changes out quicker. I appreciate your comments as well to give me more to consider about my implementation." The name of the game is essentially contextualizing and stretching out your praise such that it comes across as personal. In addition to making people smile, approaching it selfishly (in the same way the book does) the harder praise hits someone the more they will seek it in the future.

Using "Savannah's Secret Formula"

This comes from (if memory serves) a seminar in which someone discusses actions taken when faced with complaining. Savannah had a special way of dealing with complaints or criticism that basically amounted to a form of mirroring in my opinion. Mirroring has been shown consistently to build interpersonal reputation. In this case, it's a simple promise of stopping, listening to complaints, and digesting it into a specific adjective, such as "that must have been disappointing" or "I could see how that could have be concerning" in such a way that relates to the person you're speaking to. This exudes sympathy to the dissatisfied person.

Recap the Call

Even if you don't have questions, at the end of a call or as an email, send a follow-up thanking them for the time and summarizing the action items or next steps to ensure everyone is on the same page as to what happens next. This has been material for a while now since I read this book to ensuring clarity and limiting awkward follow-ups.

Avoid Describing Problems Without Solutions

Earn respect by putting thought into how to rectify the problem before you report the problem externally. Even if there's not a perfect solution, it sets up whoever is getting the bad news for some modicum of success, which shows consideration for them.

Honorable Mention: Micromanaging the Terrain*

Emphasis was placed on being very particular about the time of day, the day, even the weather outside when an important meeting is placed. This isn't something I'd do per-se, but something I found interesting to consider in exceptional circumstances.

Honorable Mention: Snitch Notes*

There was a funny section regarding complaining/gossiping coworkers. Working for the same company for several years, going through any startup growing pains to enterprise adjustments, it'd be insane to think I don't experience any of them. There were many reasonable ways to approach it, some of which I've used like saying "hmmm", "dang", etc as basic filler to come across as deliberately disengaged. This is to meet complaining/gossip with a refusal to agree, disagree, or offer opinion. A weirder, entertaining one was to start taking notes. Say things like "hold on let me get that" and when pressed as to why you're taking notes say "I want to make sure I'm getting this right" as if you intend to rereference it. I'd absolutely never do this, but it sounded pretty funny as an approach.

Hopefully these are good tips for others and, if not, writing them out is going to keep me honest in continuing to utilize them.

*Leil doesn't call it this, I'm taking it upon myself to title it.