05 March 2011

How to kill a water cooler conversation at your nonprofit organization

I am shocked by the email I'm getting these days from nonprofit professionals, thanking me for posting practical advice to this blog. Apparently, some people are reading it for purposes other than amusement or in a spirit other than schadenfreude!

Obviously, I need a little course correction here. In the form of impractical advice.

Therefore, today's lesson for nonprofit professionals will be on how to kill a water cooler conversation at the office. Let us commence.

The most important function of informal dialogue in the workplace is to establish dominance, thus squelching the sort of information exchange, collaboration, peer learning, good feeling, and other factors that can only lead to holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."

Your first assignment is to start with casual conversations in the elevator, the break room, and around the water cooler. Later on, you can graduate to killing conversations in mission-critical meetings, but we will begin with a simple exercise.

Your goal is to respond to conversational gambits with the implied message "I can top that."(1)

Here are some examples.

Co-worker: The stairs are wet, so please be careful. I slipped on them and bruised my knee.
You: Well, I once slipped on some stairs and broke my leg.

Co-worker: Jane told me about something interesting that happened to her mother when she was in Argentina.
You: Well, my mother went to Antarctica.

Co-worker: It's strange that I'm having trouble learning Haitian Creole, considering I got decent grades in high school French.
You: Well, my school didn't have grades - everything was pass/fail.
Do you see what I mean? If you regard every remark as an opportunity to bring the focus back to yourself and establish that you and yours are ever so much more so(2) than the current topic of conversation, then you will soon find that no one tells you anything.

1) As Fran Lebowitz so justly remarked, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting." If you use this as a guiding principle,you can triple or quadruple the impact of your response with the right tone of voice.

2) Choose your own adjective.


Anonymous said...

Love that Fran Lebowitz quote! Don't people know that it's a joke, and not guidance on how win friends and influence people?

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder how people like that are attracted by a sector where the greater good rather than self-absorption is supposed to be an prevailing value.