Talk the talk: Lessons from the Exchange

I learned my first lessons in the importance of workplace communication when I had a job in the British Pound trading pit at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. What makes the exchange special is that there are no pretenses: You don't have to be an Ivy Leaguer or a genius trader to succeed. The people who do succeed are alert, quick, and well versed in the art of communication.

It's ironic that the most treasured office skill is most prevalent at the most un-officelike place. But the trading floor is a great classroom for people who work in a traditional office, especially those who remain stalled professionally because of a lack of communication skills.

Lesson 1: Learn the secret language.

 Every office has a secret language. At the Merc, it's hand signals. The trading pit– literally a pit– is filled with people waving and motioning because it's so large and loud that people have to use hand signals to talk to each other. I had to take a class so that I could signal phrases like "Prudential Bache has a large order in the British pound pit that needs to be filled at 68." The guy across the room might say, "Watch me for an order coming in," and I'd have to keep a close eye on him all day because he'd signal the order only once before giving the business to someone else. The difference between "buy at 68" and "sell at 68" is the turn of a palm. At a standard office, the secret language may be that business is mostly conducted by e-mail or meetings, or that the boss likes to be presented with ideas in a certain way. If you don't communicate in the way that people expect, no one will hear you.

Lesson 2: Build relationships during downtimes, and you will benefit during the fast times.

When the trading floor is slow, the traders and clerks stand around talking; the scene resembles a bar. If you're not funny or insightful or clever, or at least good at laughing at other peoples' jokes, people will not like you. And if people don't like you on the trading floor, it will cost you– just like at the office. When trading picks up and phone orders from brokers stream in, people will trade with you or they won't. At the office, if you are disliked, you aren't asked out to lunch, assigned good projects, or given help and support when you need it.

Lesson 3: The small communication cues are the most important.

In the office, this rule is subtle. For example, I had a boss who was great verbally, but whenever he got nervous he would bite his nails and, no matter what he was saying, all we heard was, "This place is headed for a train wreck." People pick up on the most casual, seemingly trivial things.

The great thing about the trading floor is that you get immediate feedback when you botch a small cue. When trading is fast, prices move fast, and if you miss a price, you could be held responsible for getting that price anyway. In the language of hand signals, a trader can say, "I have 600 shares to sell at 70," in less than two seconds. The trader will make that sale by simply catching someone's eye and seeing that person nod. If either one of those people makes even the slightest mistake, they could lose thousands or millions of dollars.

It's not an exaggeration to say that poor communication skills are the number one problem that holds people back in the workplace. One manager I talked to at a Fortune 500 company said that most of her management time is spent coaching people on how to talk to each other so that teams work efficiently. "And people don't even appreciate it," she says. For everyone out there who has been coached by a boss, be grateful. Because on the trading floor, you'd otherwise be fired immediately.