My grade 11 English teacher, Leslie Silverstein, had a unique way of connecting with his students. He would often share his observations about the way he saw people interact with each other. I remember one time he asked the class the following question:
“Have you ever been in a room with a family member with absolutely nothing to talk about with them?”
Immediately, I started to think of the many times I was in similar situations and how uncomfortable I was. The awkward silence used to drive me crazy. What made it worse was I didn’t know how to break the tension during these moments.
My Social Skill Development
When these moments arise, it’s often because one or both of the people in the room could benefit from improving their social skills. “Social skills are the emotional intelligence skills to properly manage one’s and others’ emotions, to connect, interact and work with others.” In my case, I wanted to get to a point where I would no longer have to worry about having nothing to talk about with another person. I focused on two core areas.
#1 Asking Open-Ended Questions
Think about a time when you were on a really lousy first date. You’ve gone through your standard ‘get to know you’ checklist (ie: you’ve already shared what your favourite movies and bands are) and now you feel like you’ve run out of things to say. You check your phone and realize you’ve been at the bar for only 20 minutes! Things aren’t going well.
But then, you suddenly ask the other person to tell you what they are most grateful for. This sparks a new conversation. You’ve moved away from binary, yes/no closed questioning to giving the other person space to share more about themselves. Having two or three of these questions available will help you spark dialogue and prevent similar situations from happening in the future.
#2 Improving Body Language
Now it’s time to be honest with yourself. Think of the last 10 meetings you attended where someone else was presenting. What were you doing? Were you consistently giving the presenters your undivided attention? Were you ‘multitasking’? Perhaps you were you on your phone answering emails?
I think most of us would be lying to ourselves if we said that we consistently gave the presenters our undivided attention. I’m guilty of this as well. It’s not that I’m trying to be malicious. It’s usually because I have a million things to do and want to end my workday at a reasonable hour to spend time with my family.
Unfortunately, regardless of the intent, those lapses in body language can damage your relationships and credibility. Think of the flip side, if you were seeking someone’s feedback on your work and they were busy on their phone, how would you feel in the moment?
The best way to overcome this is to always pay attention and show that you’re listening. For starters, put your phone away. Remove any distraction that could prevent you from paying attention and focus solely on the other person. Next: use non-verbal signals to show that you’re listening. Maintain eye contact, nod your head, smile…do whatever comes naturally. The most important thing is to make sure the other person can feel your presence.
What you can do this week
In your next two meetings with your colleagues, practice asking open-ended questions and focus on your body language. Do your best to implement these principles.
Please comment or email me letting me know how this went.