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Make Your Workplace Chats Better

Get more done by adding structure to water-cooler conversations.

Key points

  • You may be less likely to retain information and next steps discussed outside a formal meeting.
  • If you are frequently interrupted by a particular colleague, establish a routine one-on-one.
  • Leverage the formal chain of command to make informal reporting relationships more effective.
Mikhail Nilov / Pexels
Don't be afraid to take formal notes even in an informal chat with a colleague.
Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

Those tidbits someone drops on you at the coffee station or that text or quick check-in from a colleague can be every bit as important as the formal information and discussion you get when sitting in meetings. The problem is that informal, unstructured communication is often hit-or-miss: You may remember the good point someone made or the next steps discussed, but more likely you will not.

The trick is to put some structure in those informal learnings. Just as you would note and apply what you learn during a formal meeting, you should capture and leverage as much informal information as possible. When asked to work things out at your own level, informal communication can be the ultimate tool if approached effectively.

Pay close attention to all those unstructured interactions that come your way between, before, or right after a meeting, or even cross talk during meetings. If they involve any substantive talk about the work, those seemingly one-off communications can be key. There is often critical information in post-meeting huddles, too.

Don’t let it stay in the ether. Put as much structure as you possibly can in those unstructured informal communications:

  • Stop the person who is delivering the aside
  • Visibly take notes
  • Follow up in writing to confirm the communication and try to schedule a structured follow-up one-on-one conversation

Dealing with interruptions

This tactic is especially valuable when it comes to interruptions. Who are your regular interrupters? And whom do you find yourself interrupting on a regular basis? If you find yourself frequently chatting about the work informally, turn those communications into an ongoing conversation.

The next time one of the regular interrupters interrupts you, don’t dismiss the conversation. After absorbing the interruption, suggest scheduling a one-on-one meeting. In between now and your scheduled one-on-one, suggest that you each keep a list of what you want to discuss with the other—and that you each prepare a bit before you meet.

Imagine how much more productive that one conversation is likely to be than numerous interruptions. When that first meeting ends, schedule another conversation. Establishing a cadence of regular, structured communication will eventually create an upward spiral of performance for both you and your colleague.

Diagonal relationships can be especially tricky

What about diagonal relationships—the ones where you’re working with people above or below your position on the organization chart, but with whom you don’t have a direct reporting relationship?

What’s tricky about these relationships is the power differential. But it’s indirect power, which means informal communication can lead to misunderstandings and stepped-on toes. The key here is not to be afraid to leverage the formal chain of command to make your informal reporting relationships more effective.

When you are managing diagonally down, make sure to stay aligned with that person’s direct boss. If anything changes in your working relationship with this individual, keep the boss in the loop.

When you are managing diagonally up, make sure to stay aligned with your boss. You don’t want to disappoint this other senior person, but make sure you keep your boss’s authority in the situation front and center—and treat your boss with the utmost respect. Demonstrate your respect for authority, structured communication, and alignment at every step. It’s the right thing to do and the impression you always want to make.

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