Work relationships can be messy. Think about it – you’re in a place where folks either “have” to be or “want” to be – and sometimes both. This creates some strange wants and needs when people are communicating, and even stranger relationship dynamics can develop.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of work friendships or relationships. It’s too messy, and if you know me, you might know that I’m always saying, “be more than your job!” Friendships and relationships are a big part of it: if you spend all day with people at work only to go home and hang out with them after work, you’re either going to be best friends or hate each other eventually. It gets weird and awkward when someone has to be an assertive communicator and the other person is more comfortable being passive, or if a conflict arises at work that feels a bit too close to the friendship.
Even if you avoid work friendships and romantic relationships like me, you’re going to bump into status issues in relationships that are strictly colleague-focused only. Status is a fascinating thing to explore: as it’s something that we’re not always aware of when we’re thinking about our communication and listening skills. It refers to how we view ourselves in reference to other people and taps back into early improv commedia dell’arte: from traditional kings and their status versus court jesters and theirs.
We can show our status in a few different ways when we communicate. For our purposes, we’re going to look at status in movement, posture, speech, and interaction with others. This might not be the case with every interaction you have: pay attention to when these traits come out.
Movement and Posture
If you’re the higher status person in an interaction, chances are your movements are focused, quiet and confident. You’ll have firm handshakes, directed gestures. Your head won’t be zipping around from person to person; rather you’ll move it only slightly and make clear eye contact. You’re standing upright but not still, open chest (meaning, not curled shoulders) and you look relaxed.
On the flip side, if you’re embodying low status, you’re less directed and almost unsure with your movements. You might be nervous, jerky, stiff or tight with your movements. You’re not making eye contact, and you’re looking around – and moving your head around – a lot. Shoulders are probably curled and tight, and you might be bent over and stiff.
Speech is a big tell with status, only followed by posture in my opinion. With high status, you’re talking in a deeper, relaxed and normal pitch. You might yell or whisper if it’s appropriate to the situation. On the flip side, if you’re taking on low status, you’re probably quiet, mumbling, high pitched or talking fast. In women, this is where we hear and see the “head voice” come out – that voice that folks call “shrill”? Lower status tell.
Interaction With Others
This one is a doozy: when you’re taking the high status, you’re touching people all the time. You’re laying a hand on someone’s shoulder, picking lint off of someone, and connecting. You also might be staring another person down if you’re USING your high status. Low status is going to shy away from touching others and pulling back from unwanted contact.
The doozy comes in when people have issues touching too much: I witnessed an interaction where a woman hugged a friend of mine and he pulled away. The next time she saw him, she tried to hug him again, and he firmly said “no” – to which she said, “Oh I knew you were uncomfortable!”
Then. Why. Hug. Again. You. Sociopath.
I think people can “bully” and take advantage of physical contact – or simply just not read the room and understand their status isn’t a confident high status…but an intimidating one. Which leads us to…
So what does this all mean?!Status is equal parts fascinating and intimidating: high status seems like a confidence move, right? Yet in that last example, the high status of the woman was negative! It’s not a choice to move high or low status: it’s a constant dance to how you want to be perceived and how you want to use status for your advantage.
Here’s an example: you’re coming into a job interview. What status do you want show? Probably high in some areas and lower – but not low in others!
Here’s another: you’re going into a meeting with your boss. High or low? Again, a combo of both will probably yield the best results. What if you’re the boss – again! – probably a combo.
Your homework: pay attention to those relationships you have at work (and beyond!) and see them for the status. You might be surprised!