Social awareness is a critical skill as a consultant. No, I’m not referring to the latest social networking technology, I’m talking about how well you navigate social interaction with others. It’s easy to fall into the habit of sitting at your desk all day long and coding. Coding is your job and hopefully you enjoy it, but coding can make us introverted (read anti-social). Humans interaction is much more complex than machine interaction. Subtle behavioral cues make up the lion share of how we communicate.

Humans instinctively provide these cues through body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Just imagine how many ways you can interpret the word hello. Just by changing body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice you can give a cheerful greeting, indicate surprise, or even belittle someone. A consultant must be skilled at reading these cues to be successful at selling ideas and maintaining positive client relationships, but social awareness requires practice. In this article we’ll discuss how you can make yourself more socially aware.

Socialize in the Office

It may sound cliché, but walk around the office during your breaks and take part in water cooler chat. Try to interact with people you’ve never met in the office. Open with them (i.e. initiate the conversation). If you are uncomfortable in social settings, prepare some conversation topics (e.g. simple things like the weather or a sports game). Pickup on their cues in the conversation. If they mention something that you are interested in (e.g. fitness, boxing), tell a story of your own about the topic. Try to relate to their experiences in a meaningful way. Not only does this help you build social skills, but it also increases your social network.

Pay Attention in Meetings

Not just to what others are saying, but pay attention to their behavioral cues and reactions. If there is someone who is very successful at driving meetings in his or her direction, you will likely notice that they are very adept at reading others. Learn from them and even ask for their advice. Those who are successful are often excited to share their thoughts with others.

Dress for Success

While being a coder often gives us the freedom to dress a little more casual than the rest of the business world, dressing well serves several purposes. First, it sets you apart from the coder crowd. While it may not be a fair stereotype, if you look more professional, others won’t see you as one of those “weird IT guys.” A professional look makes you more approachable. Second, looking nice can help to build your confidence (for more tips on building confidence see this previous post). If you need some style help, go to a fashionable business casual boutique and ask for help (e.g. Banana Republic). Once you have a good feel for your style you can shop less expensive stores.

Take up a Sport and/or a Social Cause

Sports and social causes are a great way to meet people and socialize. The great thing about these types of gatherings is the attitude of all those involved. In general, these people will be upbeat and in a great mood. This makes interaction much easier. In addition, opening becomes easier as you will be introduced to everyone when you start.

Work on your Emotional IQ

Be considerate of others and evaluate how your actions or words affect their emotions. The Wikipedia definition of emotional IQ:

a self-perceived ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups

Avoid being overly technical, be friendly, outgoing, and conscious of the feelings of others. This gets you far in the workplace.

Tips for Success

  • Don’t be too much of a talker. Keep your conversations as short and to the point as possible. In general, people like a brief social interaction but long winded conversation keeps them away from their work and may cause them to think of you as boring.
  • Conversation goes two ways. Give the other participant openings to add to the conversation. People generally like to talk about themselves and will have good feelings toward you if you are a good listener.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Some people are not social (hey, you may be thinking you’re not social as you read this) or may be in a hurry. If someone cuts out of a conversation quickly, don’t take it personally.
  • Beware of office gossip. Gossip is not a good conversation topic. If you are talking to someone who begins to gossip, try to exit the conversation gracefully. Those who gossip are very likely to gossip about you and what you said.

If you have other tips from experience that help to build social awareness, please post them in the comments.