How To…

Flat hierarchies. Open floor plans. Infinite ways to chat with the person next to you. It’s a confusing time for workplace communication. Unless you know the tricks. Here is our ultimate guide to navigating conversation in the modern workplace.

How To…


“Continually ask, ‘Why?’ It’s a good way to probe a speaker’s thinking without making them defensive. Let’s say you’re running an ad company and a big brand executive comes in and says, ‘We need to have a presence on Facebook.’ You would say, Why? And the guy would say, ‘Because all of our competitors are on Facebook.’ And you’d say, Why? ‘Because they want to position themselves as forward-looking and youthful.’ Why? ‘Because they want to make more money with young people.’ Now we’re getting somewhere.”
–Jonathan Taplin, director, Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California



You’re watching a football game, or maybe a sad movie. Your heart is racing, your palms are sweating, you’re weeping. Why do the emotions feel so real? “It’s part of what we call mirror neurons,” says neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. Mirror neurons are cells located in your brain’s frontal lobe, and they tend to react the same way whether you’re watching someone do something or doing that same thing yourself. To harness the power of others’ unconscious brains, kick off every important dialogue with your pearly whites. “If I smile at someone, mirror neurons mimic that behavior. To some extent, that person smiles inside.”


There is no value, no unseen potential, in emails marked “High Priority.” In a world of texts and phone calls and walks down the hall, such message classification demands urgency in a medium that cannot guarantee it. “High Priority” is false. It is arrogant. A conversation killer. Outlook, Entourage, and the rest: Please eliminate this feature. Let nobody waste seconds on its promise.


Avoid blame. A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, it’s my fault. I can take care of it.’ That doesn’t help figure out why the failure happened and how to avoid it in the future. Ask questions, especially as a manager. What do you feel happened in this situation? Is there something you could have done better? When you come up with a solution yourself, you feel ownership of it. Make failure a part of regular conversation. Take time, as a group, to recognize what you’re struggling with each day. Ask each other, What are your challenges today? What is making you most nervous? That gets everyone talking and makes any future conversation about bigger struggles that much easier.”
–Cass Phillipps, Executive Producer of FailCon, a conference that explores why and how things fail


There’s more to introversion and extroversion than quiet people and loud people. In fact, psychobiology decides how we interact with others. The key is in our central nervous systems. “Introverts have a more active nervous system, and extroverts have a very high threshold for stimulation,” says Gregory Feist, a psychology professor at San José State University. His work helped inform Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. What is the ideal working environment for an introvert? “Arrange offices in a less-stimulating way,” he suggests, “with less noise or lower light levels.”


“It’s surprising how hard it is to describe things to a child. But if you can do that effectively, then you can probably simplify your explanation to a pretty good degree. Something happens when you become a grown-up. You get comfortable with complex language and long sentences, often unnecessarily.”
–Demetri Martin, comedian and author of the forthcoming book Point Your Face at This

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Reporting By E.B. Boyd, Charles Curtis, Jason Feifer, Jillian Goodman, Anya Kamenetz, Lindsey Kratochwill, Tara Moore, J.J. Mccorvey, And Margaret Rhodes

[Flowchart Image: Marekuliasz via Shutterstock]