There has been a lot of focus over the last few years on the importance of

building strong business relationships. The ability to connect with and engage customers, coworkers, employees and bosses is more important than ever in our success and enjoyment at work.

The closer we get to each other, however, the more important it is to be aware of the invisible social lines that can create discomfort and awkwardness – sometimes disaster – when crossed. Lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior; lines between acceptable and unacceptable conversation topics, lines between candid conversation, and conversation that becomes too personal. Here are some general guidelines to help you ensure that you don’t inadvertently cross any of these lines:

1. In conversation, wait for other people to introduce topics. If the other person mentions their family, it’s usually okay to discuss family. If the other person mentions pets, it’s usually okay to talk about pets.

2. Listen more than you talk. A LOT more.

3. Focus on facts and avoid your opinions (see Chapter 16 on Opinions).

4. If you’re at a business social function where alcohol is served, never consume more than one drink. It’s a business function, not a frat party.

5. If a coworker, customer, boss or employee begins sharing personal challenges, listen and sympathize but do not get involved or offer solutions.

6. Don’t tell a joke (or forward a joke email), unless the material is safe enough that you would be comfortable telling it to your grandmother.

As a general rule of thumb, always err on the side of caution. All it can take is one social faux pas, one line crossed, to have long lasting consequences to your career. And be aware that the lines change depending on the nature of your relationship. You aren’t always allowed to play by the same rules as the other person. A customer, for example, might launch into a tirade about the wart problem she has on her feet, but this does not mean you should be comfortable reciprocating by telling the customer about your own medical challenges. A boss may confide in you that he (she) is having difficulties at home. This does not open the door for you to begin talking about your issues at home.

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