Talk Your Way to the Top: Why Old-School Communication Skills Are the
Competitive Edge New Grads Need
By Geoffrey Tumlin
You’ve just graduated from college and are (justifiably) proud of your
accomplishment. But as you head into the workforce, don’t expect your new
credentials or your great GPA to do the heavy lifting for you. They don’t
matter nearly as much as your ability to articulate, influence, persuade,
and connect. These days, innovation and collaboration rule, and without the
skills you need to do both, even the most prestigious degree is just a piece
What stands out to hiring managers are great communication skills. Can
you pitch an idea to a supervisor? Can you build a consensus among group
members? Can you build rapport with a client?
Gen Yers will need much more than “just” an education to get the
attention of hiring managers and bosses. Any new grad who struggles with
communication will need to boost those skills in order to get ahead.
Here, I share eight communication lessons that will give you the
competitive edge you need, now and throughout your career:
Take a daily dose of higher-order communication. Most new grads are highly
skilled users of social media, text messages, and email. But these modes of
communication are characterized by expedience and convenience—it’s easier to
send messages this way than to call or to communicate face-to-face.
Not all of our communication can happen effectively along lower-order
channels. Sometimes we need to do difficult things with our communication,
like resolve a conflict, persuade someone who’s reluctant, or convey a
complicated idea. When we reach for our more difficult and time-intensive
higher-order communication skills, we can’t afford for them to be rusty.
That’s why everyone should practice higher-order communication every day.
Even though it takes longer and is more difficult, walk over and talk to
a coworker instead of sending an instant message. Call a friend and
congratulate her on getting a new job instead of posting it on Facebook. And
go visit your client instead of writing him an email. In these situations,
you’ll be using higher-order communication, but the stakes will still be
relatively low. You won’t be under the pressure and stress that will come
when you have to deal with more difficult issues face-to-face. These daily
doses of higher-order conversations will keep your face-to-face and your
real-time communication skills sharp, so that you’ll be able to tackle
high-stakes situations successfully.
Talk (and type) like your grandmother’s watching. While words can build
our work relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning
speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless email, or a hasty remark can—and
does—land people in hot water all the time.
A quick and effective way to improve your communication is to pretend
like your grandmother—or someone else who brings out the best in you—is
standing by your side when you are talking or typing. Acting like someone
you respect is looking over your shoulder will give you the pause you need
to get in front of ill-advised words and provide the space you need to
self-correct when you’re frustrated, agitated, or confused.
Expect less from technology (and more from people). Because technology
does a lot for us, it’s easy to overestimate its role in our success. But
our enthusiasm for what our digital communication tools can do shouldn’t
cause us to lose sight of the people behind the tools. Our devices don’t
possess the communication abilities we think they do.
A tech-centered view of communication encourages us to expect too much from
our devices and too little from each other. We assume that hitting “send”
means we’ve communicated, when really, the other person may not have
understood the message at all. Even with the most powerful connection and
transmission devices in human history in the palm of our hands,
communication doesn’t happen until the other person understands.
Listen like you’re getting paid for it. The digital revolution
facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but made it
harder for anyone to listen. Between emails, social media, and texts,
there’s just too much communication junk getting in the way. Our thoughts
are scattered, our minds wander, and ever-present distractions make it
difficult for us to focus on the person right in front of us. We need to
make a concerted effort to reinvigorate our listening skills.
Listening decisively improves communication, and that fundamental lesson
is one that’s easy to forget in our frenetic multitasking environment. The
funny thing is that people tell us all the time about what they value, what
they want, and what they’re worried about, but we’re often too busy thinking
about what’s in our inbox or who just texted us to absorb much of what
they’re saying. The “old school” behavior of listening will help you become
a much better communicator and become far more knowledgeable about the
people you work with.
Assume you’re a terrible questioner (and set out to fix it). Most of us
have poor questioning skills because we don’t think twice before blurting
out a query. But questions aren’t neutral; they are powerful communication
tools because they change the trajectory of a conversation. As you’ve
probably noticed, questions often make conversations worse. Even “simple”
inquiries can go awry. “Is this your final report?” or “Did you call John in
accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s
a criticism behind the query.
Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add
anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more
you query to hammer home a point or to satisfy a narrow interest, the more
your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. Use your questions to open up
a conversation and learn about the topic you’re discussing. If you take your
questions as seriously as you take your new job, you’ll dramatically reduce
the friction caused by faulty questions.
Act like every interaction might be important. Nothing kills a
conversation faster than someone who doesn’t care. And it doesn’t take much
more than folded arms, a disapproving scowl, a sigh of boredom, or a
well-placed eye roll to make someone feel like what she’s saying just
doesn’t matter. And the company newbie, who needs to establish connections
all over the office, can’t afford to prematurely shut the door on any
Conversations are often unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and
occasionally exhilarating. We simply don’t know which of our interactions
might be vital to us—or to someone else. Words we painstakingly arrange may
fall completely flat, while a chance encounter might lead to a vital
breakthrough or to a crucial relationship we never anticipated. Because we
never know what might happen, the wise course is to act as if every
interaction is important.
Don’t “be yourself.” “I was just being myself” sounds harmless, but it’s
often an excuse to indulge in bad interpersonal behavior. Authenticity is
good in spirit, but in practice it often torpedoes our goals and harms our
I’m not suggesting that you become a fake, just that you don’t cloak
impulsive—and counterproductive—communication in the fabric of “being
yourself.” The overwhelming feeling that you should say something is usually
a warning sign that you shouldn’t. Smart communicators don’t blurt out dumb
things and then try to cover their tracks by claiming authenticity. That’s
not what will endear you to your new colleagues.
Let difficult people win. Your coworker Jane loves to argue. Your
colleague Jim is incredibly stubborn. Your client in Albuquerque is always
moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that
make someone a difficult person spark frequent confrontations. Even if you
fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Jane’s arguments, you won’t
match her debating skills. You won’t change Jim’s mind on anything. And
you’ll be unsuccessful in your efforts to offset your client’s mood swings.
Don’t lock horns with difficult people.
At the end of a conversation, a difficult person remains the same, but
often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your
desire to “win” by imposing your will on the other person can realistically
and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. Let
difficult people win. And when you find yourself with no choice but to
interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents,
and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.
Your communication—productive or unproductive, healthy or
dysfunctional—is a major factor in how successful you will be in any job.
For the kinds of productive and meaningful interactions you want—and need—at
work, pack a few communication ideas you didn’t learn at college in the
pocket of your new suit to show you have the communication skills to succeed
in business environments where innovation and collaboration are king.
About the Author:
Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, an
organizational development company; the founder and board chair of Critical
Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing
communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved
populations; and is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating:
Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill,
August 2013). You can learn more about Geoffrey Tumlin at
www.tumlin.com, and you can reach him
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.