How To Stop Putting Your Foot In Your Mouth At Work (& Feel Less Awkward, Too)

The social side of communication doesn't stop at the office door.

Woman on work break smiles at camera. ESB Professional /

We've all had it happen: an awkward moment at work that still stings a day later. For example, during an important meeting, maybe you interjected a comment that wasn’t in line with your goals, nor with the persona, you have been working so hard to project.

Eager to share your thoughts, you blurted out a remark that not only caught others off-guard but actually offended some of the participants.


Not great, right? Communication can be hard

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Are You Feeling Shame and Pain, Realizing That You (Again) Did Not Read The Room?

  •      Do you have a difficult time interacting with others, especially people you don’t know well or in high-intensity situations?
  •      Do you have a hard time sharing or engaging in back-and-forth conversations?
  •      Can you make off-topic remarks, or struggle with reading body language and understanding personal space?

Working on social communication skills can help

Social communication skills are a vital part of the human experience because they help us interact positively in social situations. Without these skills, we may appear uncooperative or rude. Honing the skills to notice and interpret others’ social cues and possible reactions will in turn help us better peer interactions and help us bond with one another.


What Do We Mean By “Social Communication?"

Social communication is how and why we interact with other people. It is the ability to tailor our communications depending on the where, what, who, when, and why we are communicating.

We learn these skills through instruction, such as being taught directly (how to say “Please and Thank you,”) or through experience (reading the room to judge energy and participants). We learn how to communicate by using non-verbal means (gesturing, signing or pointing) and/or verbal means (vocalizing or speaking).

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Knowing and using these unwritten rules makes communication easier. Once we’ve figured out the rules, we don’t even think about them, they become automatic.


Further, as each of us is different from one another, we can tailor the rules to match our own comfort level.

Why Work on Social Communication Skills?

We all want to be socially accepted, regardless of our age. Social communication skills maximize our abilities to interact appropriately and build social relationships with other people. It is also important in work environments as many formal and informal situations rely on working in groups and communication between peers.

Some of us haven’t developed social skills as quickly or as effectively as our peers. There are many reasons why someone might have trouble with social communication, which can include people with ADHD who have impulsive or overactive symptoms that can interfere with the communication styles of others.

Examples of social communication

Every company, business meeting, culture—and even every family—can have its own set of rules. As these rules are not written down, they can be difficult to interpret successfully in different situations.


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There are many ways to use social communication. Here are a few examples:

  • Say “hello” when walking into a room.
  • Tailor language to match the situation, such as asking for a turn instead of demanding it.
  • Understand sarcasm and how to use it without offending others.
  • Know when and how to change the conversational topic.
  • Understand expressions like “at the end of the day.”       
  • Understand humor and make jokes.
  • Take turns being a talker and being a listener.
  • Stay on topic and let others know the topic when you start talking.
  • Edit what you are saying when others don’t understand you.
  • Use facial expressions, eye contact gestures, and body language.
  • Know how close to stand to someone when talking.

10 Ways to Build and Incorporate Social Communication Skills Into Daily Life:

1. Add more meaning to daily interactions.

An easier way to segue into strengthening your social skills is to interact more deeply on a daily basis.

For instance, if a neighbor is walking by, you might offer more than a simple, “Hi." Reply with a question instead of a one-word answer when asked how your day is going.


Similarly, find ways to add more “meat” and meaning to everyday conversations with acquaintances and colleagues.

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2. Plan ahead to participate more.

You may need to plan in advance of a board meeting on how you participate more. Set a goal for yourself to offer at least one project or business strategy at your next board meeting.

3. Ask open-ended questions.

This is a great way to get friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and even your superiors talking while allowing you to better understand their perspectives.

Open-ended questions also have the benefit of making others feel wanted and validated in their thoughts and emotions since it shows you are taking interest in their ideas. This can have a positive impact on how you build relationships with them.


Try the following open-ended questions:

  •  “How have you experienced … ?”
  • “Can you tell me more about yourself?”
  • “What do you do when X happens?”

4. Be a “social spy.”

Observe your colleagues, neighbors, classmates, etc., and take notice of which ones have effective and engaging social skills.

Consider how they start conversations using nonverbal communication, body language (such as smiling and nodding), and vocabulary. Next, start incorporating the traits you admire most into your own communication style.

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5. Maintain eye contact.

During conversations, make it a mental habit to hold eye contact for at least three to five seconds. Many people feel awkward doing this, so consider practicing with a family member first.


I recommend letting them know that you are trying to improve your ability to maintain eye contact. Of particular note, place greater emphasis on holding eye contact at the beginning, when listening and while thanking them, and closing the conversation.

6. Listen actively.

When you engage by listening intently to others, you make the other person feel comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts.

Maintaining eye contact, and adding non-verbal communication such as nodding and asking questions all contribute to making you an active listener.

7. Invite others.

Start with one person at a time as you work toward building workplace relationships. Invite someone who is on your team or has a similar role out for lunch, coffee, or for a walk.


Initially, ask questions that are non-intimidating, then slowly work your way up to more personal questions to get to know them better. As you gain confidence, connect with people in other departments and companies to grow your professional network and gain a better understanding of how your role impacts the business as a whole.

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8. Compliment others genuinely.

Genuine compliments can open the door to a longer conversation, as well as help bridge a gap with someone with whom there is tension. We all know a fake compliment when we hear it, so be sure to keep it genuine, but don’t expect one in return.


9. Be "in the know.”

Talk in the break room often involves discussions around current events and series. Stay up on current trends to give you topics to talk about with others.

Subscribing to news alerts or industry-specific newsletters will give you content that is current. Be sure to avoid controversial topics like politics or religion to keep conversations professional and friendly.

10. Research and practice.

There are countless resources both on and offline on how to build social skills. You can even break it down to individual topics such as starting conversations, making eye contact, etc.

From there, put your learnings into practice.

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Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC founded and facilitates a comprehensive SEL training methodology for adults, parents, clinicians, and academic professionals on how to develop critical social, emotional and behavioral skills, in themselves and in others.