Nurturing relationships to improve your comms

You’ll often hear comms people say friends and family don’t actually know what they do. I know when I have asked loved ones about my work, they list out a handful of tasks and some random explanation of what they think I do. For my situation, culture plays into this abyss of knowledge – comms and PR isn’t the go-to choice for a career in the Pakistani community and awareness of it is still limited. Increasingly, the more I speak to people, the more I realise they also know very little of the ‘comms world’. That’s probably one of the reasons why comms often doesn’t often have a seat at the table.

I have been thinking a lot about what comms is. I have been reflecting on my career and how I want to develop – and the longer I work from home, the more I find myself explaining the intricacies of my work.

Honestly speaking, I don’t think we, as comms people, do ourselves any favours. When I’m asked what I do, for example, I list out tasks I have completed, things I have written, stories shared or channels I manage. Very rarely do I share details about the work that happens behind the scenes.

The more I think about it, the more I realise I never really go into detail about the conversations I have had or the relationships I have built over the years or the ones I lean on to get the job done.

Taking you back a decade

As we come to the end of what’s been a difficult year, I realise 2020 marks a decade in comms for me. In 2010 – what feels like a lifetime ago – I left a call centre role to join a PR and comms internship. At the time, the title of my call centre job didn’t matter. Now, a decade later, when I understand the significance of words, I realise the importance of being called a ‘customer relationship manager’ as compared to a ‘customer service advisor’.

Relationship (noun)

The way in which two people or groups behave towards each other or deal with each other.

Just having the word relationship in my title meant that somehow I had to bring my whole self to the table when taking a call. A bit like a personal relationship where there’s give and take, trust, transparency and understanding.

And as I think about this now, I think about the untold work I do. The people I interact with or tell a story to. The people I work with on campaigns, who I speak to regularly. People I turn to for advice, to collaborate with, or go through the sign off process with… and the people I might piss off when my gut tells me I need to do a piece of work in a particular way.

There’s so much about comms that is about people…about relationships. And like the relationships you have in your personal life, work relationships – whether these are with your team, line manager or stakeholder – also need nurturing.

It’s quite simple actually, stronger relationships across your organisation make it easier for you to do your job well.

Is it harder to do this while working remotely? In some ways, yes. In others, no – you do have the comfort of your surroundings which I’ve heard tends to help people. And as I reflect on the past decade of my career, here are some of the things that have helped me along the way, particularly this year while working remotely…

Start meetings with small talk…intentionally

No, not ‘hi! I hope you’re staying positive while testing negative.’ that’s super cheesy and not what I mean. I mean really having a conversation with your colleagues about things that matter to them. Ask them how they’re doing and how their day has been. Some of the most productive meetings I have had have started with this. It reminds us we’re talking to people who are real and, usually, having an informal conversation before getting into business helps prime people for discussion. It also makes them feel seen and can help with wellbeing.

Reach out when you think of someone

In my role, there are so many people I learn from and connect with. Colleagues who also communicate with the same audience as me. In pre-pandemic days I’d say ‘hello’ to them when I pass them by. I would walk out of a meeting with them while talking to them – this isn’t something I can do with video calls and remote working. And so, I find it helpful to make a habit of staying in touch with those people. It doesn’t have to be much – a message, an email or virtual catch-up. We’re all human and love a no-agenda note that says ‘you crossed my mind, and I wanted to reach out to you to see how you’re doing today’. Try it – you’ll feel better for doing it too!

Encourage everyone to get involved

One of the difficulties of working remotely is that you miss social cues, meaning you miss out on actions that indicate someone is trying to speak. Think about the meetings you have had recently, the discussions and opportunities to ask questions – have you noticed someone stay quiet throughout or someone unmute themselves only to go on mute again? That’s usually the person I worry about most and invite to speak when chairing a meeting. That’s the person who is patiently waiting for their turn (which may never come) and may be uncomfortable with interrupting. Invite them to speak…not only will they appreciate it, they may voice a different perspective that hasn’t been said before.

Silence is golden

I have lost count of meetings where I always hear the same person speak. Whether it’s a social over Zoom or a work meeting, there are usually one or two people who will always voice something before others and sometimes they’ll take over. I was once that person, and this is something I’m still working on! The more awareness I have of this, the more I realise how annoying it can be and how this can impact your relationships negatively.

Try putting yourself on mute and actively listening to the other person speak. Be self-aware and intentional – not just with your words but also with your silence. It can make a real difference, not just to your working relationships but also the quality of interactions you have and how you’re perceived.

The power of silence.

Don’t underestimate it. Not everything requires a response. Sometimes you need the space to think and that’s ok. Your brain needs quiet to work things through, don’t always fill it with noise. Silence can speak volumes.

Jenni Field, Founder and director of Redefining Communications

Be empathetic

The first thing I was taught when I worked in customer services was empathy – putting myself in someone else’s shoes and thinking about how they must feel. As someone with limited responsibilities and very little worldly awareness, this was difficult. However, when handling a complaint, it really helped me to instantly diffuse the situation, setting me up to steer the conversation. And this is the same when you approach any work situation. Have an understanding of why someone is doing something a particular way. Try to understand where pressure is coming from for a particular project. Try and consider all the other responsibilities they have – personal and professional. If you keep all this in mind, I assure you, if you have an issue that needs addressing… approaching it with empathy will probably alter your words, tone and facial expressions, improving the overall relationship you have with the person – and usually the outcome.

Empathy can also help with the content you produce and comms you send out. I find that I keep coming back to Rachel Miller’s post on how to communicate with compassion to improve the work I do. Have a read and get in touch with any tips you may have on nurturing relationships to do better work.

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