The company you keep

Have you ever noticed how much your communication style is influenced by those in your immediate surroundings? Think about how easy it is to get sucked into toxic conversations at work when it’s all around you, at your cube, at the water cooler, getting coffee. Suddenly you start to drag, or slouch, or gripe. In contrast, you spend lunch with someone who’s positive and upbeat and suddenly you feel great about the whole afternoon.

I noticed this influence recently while trying to be productive at the end of our holiday weekend. I was trying to get ahead of a few things for the workweek while listening to my daughter in the background: “I’m bored, I want school to start.”

After a few hours and a few times hearing that same phrase where did I find myself? Staring at a blank word doc, next to a pile of receipts that hadn’t yet been made into an expense report, while wearing workout clothes though the gym had already closed and I missed the window of opportunity. Later I heard myself say to a friend: “I don’t know what happened to me, I was motivated this morning and planned to get ahead of a few things and yet I did exactly nothing today.”

Well, guess what? I do know what happened.

I listened to all the background noise in my house. I heard the words “bored” and “want school to start” then I became bored, and I too wanted school to start! Yes this is a minor, non-toxic example of the power of others’ words to influence our own. But wow did it prove to me that those closest to us really do influence behavior and thus, word choices and body language!

Travis Bradberry is a workplace culture and emotional intelligence expert whose articles I read often. Earlier this year, he discussed research done at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany that shows how spending time with negative people can provoke the same fight-or-flight biological stress response that any other stressor would. That stress response can cause us to make bad decisions, cloud our thinking, and change our posture and a number of other things.

Once I realized I’d been influenced by the “I’m bored” phrase, I took a few moments to self-reflect and there it was: bad posture, irritability, cloudy thinking and suddenly every challenge facing me in the next month was an insurmountable hurdle not just a learning opportunity. Once I realized it, I was able to quickly snap out of it. But it made me realize how easy it is to be influenced by those closest to you whether those are cube-mates, friends or family.

So … the company you keep is important not just for the way you’re perceived by others, but the way you perceive yourself and your current situation. This insight is important: if you perceive yourself as competent, successful and engaged in the work you do, the words that you use will likely reflect that as will your body language. If you perceive your situation to be impossible, uninspiring or boring it’s highly likely that your words and actions will reflect that, too.

Next time you approach the water cooler, or pick up the phone, or join a group for drinks after work … think about how you are feeling about your present situation, and choose to use words and body language that reflect that state you’re in, not the one occupied by the person next to you.

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