'Can We Have A Quick Chat?' The Office Phrase We Definitely Don't Miss

Why do those six little words elicit such a negative response in many of us? We asked the experts.

If you’re still working from home, there are things you may miss about the office (no, not the “proper bants” or “weird carpets”) – rather, the tea rounds, gossips with colleagues, friendly lunch breaks, and people to bounce ideas off.

There are, however, things we’ve all been happy to go without. And there hasn’t been a harder collective relate than when fellow journalist Mollie Goodfellow tweeted about that dreaded question: “Can we have a quick chat?”

You know the moment, when an office superior comes up to your desk – or slides into your chat on Slack – totally unannounced – and asks if you have a spare five minutes. No heads-up. Sudenly, you’re headed straight into an “informal” chat with your manager, sending your anxiety into overdrive.

Why do we dread it so much? The question itself is fairly innocuous, but occupational psychologist, Maria Paviour, owner of Cari Wellbeing, admits its one of her biggest “pet peeves”.

“It’s a neutral phrase that’s not neutral,” she explains. “The recipient doesn’t know whether it’s about something positive or negative, so they’ll automatically assume it’s negative. That’s how our brains are programmed.”

When we hear those two words “quick chat”, there’s likely to be a surge of chemical change which brings up stress hormones – and that starts to make you feel anxiety, she says. We’ll automatically think: “What have I done? What’s wrong?”

Later you might tell yourself it was “silly” to think you were in trouble, but that doesn’t help in the moment. Most workplaces have some element of threat associated with them, Parvour explains – for many of us, survival is dependent on bringing home money to pay our rent or mortgage, and put food on the table. So, the worst case scenario of losing our job could have dire consequences.

Not everyone avoids it though. Occupational psychologist Hayley Lewis says she even used it when she was a manager. “I think it depends on the relationship and the context as to what kind of response it creates,” she says.

“For example, you might have a manager and an employee who have a good relationship, who catch up regularly and so, for who, when the question, ‘can we have a chat?’ is said, doesn’t garner negative reactions.“ It might even signal a nice break in the daily routine and some collective time away from desk.

“Then, you might have a manager and an employee who don’t speak that often, who have a bit of a rocky relationship and therefore, when the manager asks, ‘can we have a chat?’ it feels a bit more threatening.”

There are tweaks managers can make, says Paviour. Coming over and making eye contact with you and asking you how you’re doing, before saying they need to chat to you about something can feel that little bit less daunting. “Or, contexualise it,” adds Paviour. “They could say, ’I’ve got a couple of things I need to chat to you about, just to do with X and X. Don’t worry we can sort it, shall we have a quick chat?”

Tone of voice plays its part, too, adds Lewis. “If the manager says it with a sense of urgency and seems in a bad mood then that is going to make the innocuous ‘can we have a chat?’ feel like a threat. If it’s said with a smile and warmth because it’s just a catch-up, then that has a very different impact.”

If the question makes you feel fearful, there’s likely to be something wrong with the working relationship – and it’s best to bring up these issues with your manager.

“There are a few things to be mindful of when raising any kind of issue at work,” she says. “First, book some specific time to discuss the issue, rather than just try and bolt it on the end of a different discussion. Second, give one or two specific examples that back up the issue you’re trying to convey. Third, offer suggestions for what you’d prefer. And remember, the health of every relationship is a 50/50 responsibility – just as you might want your manager to do something differently, what are you prepared to do differently as well?”

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