Thursday, May 17, 2012

On being tactful…

 In my career and relationships, I’ve noticed the importance of being tactful and strategic in my choice of words and actions when meeting people and building new relationships.

I decided to take on the topic of tact because I have observed friends make small but significant blunders in their interactions.  I have certainly made mistakes which have caused me to miss on an opportunity. My hope is that my observations are insightful and helpful as you meet and network with new people.

Some weeks ago, I met my friend Jane* for drinks and appetizers with her and about four of her colleagues who I was meeting for the first time. She was very tactful in introducing me to everyone and finding me a seat at the table where I would feel comfortable. Jane also mentioned something interesting about each person as she introduced them and mentioned something interesting about me. This allowed us to have a few starting points for conversation, a great strategy to make everyone feel included!

I invited a couple of my friends. Since I knew they would be joining in a bit late, I made sure we left a couple of seats open in the middle of our circle so my friends would also have the same treatment I had from Jane. The first friend to arrive was Steve* and he joined us about 20 minutes in. I introduced him to the group and mentioned that he is a teacher. This made it easy for the new people he was meeting to begin asking him about where he teachers, what grade, etc.

I am not sure if other people feel as strongly as I do, but I definitely feel a bit of anxiety whenever I feel someone is being excluded or not brought into the conversation. So I was very pleased we were all engaged in conversation, asking questions and getting to know each other. It worked because we all asked questions, kept engaged and found ways to connect. Whenever the conversation ebbed, Jane or I quickly thought of other topics we could all speak to and kept it flowing.

A few minutes later, my friend Sarah* arrived.  Sarah was an acquaintance of Jane, but a good friend of mine and Steve. So like me, she was meeting new people. Jane and I did our part to introduce the new person to the group and find ways to keep everyone engaged. We had an excellent topic, the fun ways we all know each other---a great conversation builder.

But hosts can only do so much. Instead of engaging with the group, Sarah maintained a side conversation with Steve, who she knew well. Again, I am not sure if others are as sensitive as I am about ensuring everyone feels comfortable, but my anxiety certainly increased when try as I might, Sarah and Steve kept locked in their conversation at the center of our circle, excluding everyone else and completely damaging the dynamic of the group.

I share this anecdote to bring to light some important points. You might wonder, what’s at stake?  At worst, Sarah could have missed connecting with someone hiring in the field she is looking to enter in. Or Steve might have recruited donors to make donations to his school. Neither of them will know because they weren’t mindful of their words and actions. At minimum, what is at stake is a good evening with new friends.

There are many simple gestures and actions you can take to help individuals feel welcomed. When I am telling a story to a friend and a new person enters the circle, I try my best to quickly sum up where I am in the story so the new person feels included, allowing the person to chime in.  Or if I want to share a story that includes people that not everyone in the circle is familiar with, I add clarifying words like “Our friend Jessica…” instead of starting the story with “Jessica…etc” as if everyone knows who I am talking about. Otherwise, I run the risk of having only those familiar with the hypothetical Jessica feel able to engage in the conversation, ruining the inclusive environment.  These are simply things, but applying these things makes you tactful.

 If you find yourself in a conversation circle, remain conscience of your body, words, and gestures. Are you missing an opportunity to get to know someone new? Are you making a bad impression by closing off a circle or giving your back to someone? Are you asking questions to keep the conversation going? Are you pausing when you’re speaking about yourself to learn about the other person?  If you are mindful of these simple questions, you will have more meaningful conversations when meeting new people. This is helpful in both the professional and social world.  You will build a broader network of friends and acquaintances which is always useful.  

*names where changed.

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