When we listen, we often are trying to think of the next clever question we can ask. Or worse, our minds are wandering on to new topics. Practice active listening today. Focus on really understanding what is being said and try repeating back what you hear. #becurious #bepresent #connectionchallenge
Nonverbal communication makes a big difference in how people perceive and relate to you. Uncross your arms. If you keep your posture relaxed, inclusive and open, your team will respond by being more positive, aligned and productive. #beinclusive #connectionchallenge
In her amazing TED talk on vulnerability, researcher Brene Brown says that stories are “data with a soul.” Whether you are presenting to an audience of 1000 or having a 1-1 conversation, stories help to build trust and emotionally engage other people. Try it today. #beauthentic #betransparent #connectionchallenge
My phone rang while I was in the queue to pay at the supermarket. It was my husband, and I thought I’d just say hi. It would be quick.
But maybe not quick enough.
When I got to the front I felt the pangs of guilt when I finally looked up and noticed the check-out woman glare as I talked on. Was I really one of those people?
Have you noticed how having mobile phones gives us all liberty to demonstrate horribly anti-social behavior? Whether we are walking along the street texting, oblivious to others, ignoring each other while we play on our phones at the dinner table, or talking on the phone while we pay for our coffees, we are neglecting basic social skills that we learned as children.
There are great benefits to this connectivity, personally and at work. These tools allow us to be more globally networked. They support flexible working. They create the conditions for faster information sharing. They help us be more efficient and productive, able to manage more, and be more informed.
Sadly, though, the same research that shows the positive benefits to this connectivity says that 35% of people use their phone while playing with their children and 32% use their phones while driving their cars. And all of this phone use drastically reduces the amount of eye contact we have with one another. Even Queen Elizabeth apparently misses looking people in the eye.
Eye Contact Rules
While there are varying cultural expectations, and some cultures see a direct gaze as disrespectful, eye contact is an important part of business etiquette in the United States and most of Europe. As a general rule, making appropriate eye contact in these countries signals respect, empathy and inclusion.
While there is debate over the details, the basic rules are relatively simple:
- Look at someone when they are speaking to you: Specialists debate if it should be 30-60 percent, 70 percent or something else in between, but what is generally agreed is that you should look at someone more when listening than when you are speaking.
- Blink and nod normally: One of the goals of eye contact is to help convey that you are paying attention. By nodding and gesturing appropriately, you help the speaker interpret your eye contact in the way it’s intended. For many people this blinking and nodding comes naturally when actively listening. If you struggle with eye contact, you may need to think more about responding to the speaker with nods and other gestures to indicate you are appropriately engaged.
- Don’t stare: Most all cultures agree that extended eye contact is creepy and inappropriate. Look away after a few seconds and then look back again to avoid the sense that you are staring.
My Commitments: Going Back to Basics
If you, like me, feel you’re slipping into bad behaviour with your phone use and have forgotten the art of eye contact, there are steps you can take to make amends. Given my annoyance with those people who use their phones and ignore those around them, I have made some personal commitments to make some small but consistent changes:
- No phones at the table: A couple of years ago, my husband and I went to dinner on Valentine’s Day at an amazing local restaurant. At the table next to us there was a couple who each spent the entire evening on their phones, sitting across from each other but not communicating with each other at all. Partially in response to observing this, we made a family commitment to put away phones while we are at the table. I have always felt that the dinner table is a great place to connect as a family at the end of the day, and phones and other devices get in the way of that. By putting away our own phones, we also role model what we expect from our daughter. If you extend this to the workplace, consider putting away your phone for an hour and use lunchtime as an opportunity to connect with your colleagues sitting next to you.
- Thank you with a smile: A few months ago I started practicing basic eye contact in stores. When I buy something from someone, I look them in the eye when I order. When I get my change or receipt, I look at them and smile when I say thank you. This seems pretty simple and expected, but when I started deliberately practicing it I realized I really wasn’t doing it consistently before. And, as above, this can be extended to the workplace and to your peers. It is amazing how it changes the level of connection you feel with the people you interact with on a daily basis.
- Try videoconferencing: I spend many hours every day in virtual meetings. Until recently nearly all of these were conference calls. I didn’t see the people I was speaking with, but I could hear their voices. This meant I could stand up, walk around, make a cup of tea or even (gasp) check email while we were meeting. Now because I cared about these conversations, I made every effort to focus and want to believe I was successful. But what I missed was eye contact. I didn’t even realize it until I turned on the video, but by seeing the other person’s face, and by focusing on the screen, I increase my active listening and feel a stronger connection to those I’m meeting. Recently I was in a video call with a number of managers and one of them had her camera facing side on, so we saw her profile. She was a very active contributor on the call, but the feedback at the end was that her peers wanted her to move her camera so they could see her properly.
Eye contact. It matters more than you’d expect.
The day the River Thames was flooding my home, I was at a birthday party. Perhaps unsurprisingly I was not my positive, social self. In fact, I believe I was probably pretty miserable. An hour into being terrible company, someone approached to ask what was wrong.
“The river,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we have about six inches of it in our house now.”
Her reply came quickly, without thought: “Well, at least you’re not in Somerset.”
Somerset – for the non-British among you – is a low lying in Southern England that was also flooding at the time and getting a lot of TV coverage. But water is water. And when you get it in your house, it doesn’t matter much whether the press is there to watch the destruction.
Sadly, bad things that happen teach us lessons in empathy. But somehow, we struggle to translate the empathy we wish people would feel for us to appropriate empathy for others. I like to think that the trials I have gone through in my life have made me an empathy expert. But then I see myself tongue-tied – or even worse – lacking in patience or saying utterly the wrong thing – when others need my support.
So, as much as a reminder for myself as for others, here are the lessons around empathy I have learned from my darker moments:
- Really listen: There are tell-tale signs. You say hello. They say hello. You start talking about something or ask a question. Then they jump in and talk for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, more – clearly unhappy, and sometimes about something completely unrelated to where the conversation started. This is the indication that you need to block out all the voices in your brain that are thinking about what you’re making for dinner and listen.
- Avoid comparisons: Comparing their challenge to something you have gone through, or worse, the TV equivalent, can never end well. Even when actively listening, extroverts like me tend to understand people’s challenges by thinking about something similar they have been through. Don’t talk about that. This isn’t about you, it’s about them. Take that understanding you have about the situation and respond the way you wish people had responded to you. Show them you get it by the questions you ask. Even “I don’t know what to say, that sounds really hard,” or “It sounds like this is really difficult,” is better than saying “I know what you mean, when I lost my dog I felt like that too.”
- Don’t disregard the situation as not important: Sometimes people come to us needing support and we just don’t see what the trauma is about. Don’t they realize that things could be much worse? Why is this work issue such a big deal? Why do they feel lonely? Afraid? How can they feel sad when they have a beautiful, healthy newborn or a promotion or a new house? So what if they lose their house, aren’t they grateful to have their husband and child? Someone recently told me that grief is localized. It’s all relative. If someone is opening up to you, it’s real for them. This is a chance to give a gift of empathy. Don’t try to explain why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Don’t disregard their challenge as insignificant. This isn’t your challenge, it’s theirs. What they want is someone to listen, and to understand that for them, right now, this is difficult.
- Don’t sugarcoat: When someone comes to you angry, upset, sad, needing empathy, it is a good time to take off the rose-colored glasses. A person going through something difficult doesn’t necessarily want to look on the bright side. They want to be heard. “That sounds really difficult for you,” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” go a lot further than telling them the sun will come out tomorrow.
- Don’t try to problem solve: Many of us are paid to solve problems. We are good at it. But in a conversation like this one, the solutions may need to wait. And once it is the time and place, brain research tells us solutions and insights are better off coming from the person who is going through the challenge, and not from us who are supposed to be listening. So save the advice, and ask questions instead. Play back what you are hearing. Help them know they are heard and that what they are feeling is legitimate.
I have yet to find someone with a perfect life. No matter how many great straws we draw, there is always one that is the shortest of the lot. And in the relatively bad times, we all need those supporters who will help us through. I hope the next time I’m given that opportunity, I apply these lessons instead of reflecting on them after the fact. And the next time I need empathy, I wish for the same.