With the holidays around the corner, dinner table conversations about work are bound to come up.
It’s common to feel anxiety at the thought of explaining what you do for a living to a skeptical audience, especially when your job title can’t be summed up simply or straightforwardly.
Don’t panic yet.
It may seem difficult to get Aunt Sue to understand what the heck a Digital Strategist is or to convince Dad that you’re able to support yourself just fine thank you, but it’s not impossible.
Strategies to navigate tricky career conversations
1. Start With Questions
It’s drilled into us that the best way to get others to understand what we do is by wrapping it up in a quick, 30-second elevator speech. While your carefully crafted pitch impresses prospective employers, it may only confuse and alienate your loved ones.
Instead, gauge where your loved ones stand with understanding your career rather than immediately launching into explanation mode. Start with a broad, simple question such as “How familiar are you with [insert your profession]?” or “What do you know about [finance, sports marketing, etc]?”
By taking the lead, you have more control to steer the conversation in a positive direction. Think of it like a mini-market research challenge. It gives you the chance to unearth misconceptions they may have about what you do so you can correct them in conversation.
2. Focus on Framing
What might seem commonplace in a job description to you may be unfamiliar to others. You may know exactly what being a “Data Scientist” means while your family needs more detail to understand what that entails.
You can use simple framing techniques to make it easier for people to wrap their heads around your nontraditional career and help dinner table talk flow more smoothly.
Avoid jargon. When you catch yourself using industry-specific terms or acronyms, offer clarification or replace them with everyday vocabulary.
Use analogies. For example, “Our company is similar to…” or “My job is like accounting mixed with strategy.”
Tell a story. Recount how you overcame a challenge or provide an example of a project you worked on from start to finish. People love to hear stories and it can be a more effective way to communicate with those who may not fully understand what you do.
3. Look at what’s not being said–and try to find common ground
Be careful not to misinterpret someone’s confusion about what you to do for a living with disapproval. Avoid jumping to conclusions that they’re judging your career choices.
A poorly worded question like, “Shouldn’t you be making more money?” may intend to express concern (though misguided and unwarranted, perhaps). Before reacting defensively, give them the benefit of the doubt that they may in fact be coming from a supportive place.
Then carefully respond, acknowledging and empathizing, while standing up for a lifestyle you’ve chosen. An example of this would be, “Entrepreneurship comes with a lot of risks, and I certainly understand why that might be scary to you.” You could go on to explain how you’ve accounted for financial uncertainties or even get vulnerable about your hopes, dreams, and fears.
If you need to set a firmer boundary you can say, “Look I don’t think you meant to hurt me, but your comments were harsh. I’m not going to respond to you when you speak to me that way.” Often people are overly judgmental because they’re jealous or threatened by your success.
It’s more about their own baggage than anything you’ve done.
4. Pick your battles
If you sense the conversation is heading in a bad direction, redirect to other topics of conversation. Draw on benign connection points like a recipe you’ve been dying to try or talk about a TV show you can’t get enough of.
Sometimes defending our career choices can be a losing battle, especially if you’re dealing with a bully or highly critical family member. Walk away if necessary.
Explaining what you do can be a challenge given the complex nature of work today. Whatever you do, don’t diminish the hard work you’ve done to reach your goals. At the end of the day it’s your career and not anyone else’s. Even if your nontraditional or entrepreneurial career takes more time to explain, it’s worth it. It makes you who you are.
Follow the steps above to alleviate as much stress as possible and make this holiday one for the books–in a good way.