Approachability is a trait that most people believe they have but few actually do. We know our own good intentions and believe that those shine through for other people to see. We think we're easy to talk to when, in fact, many of us come across as distant and shy without realizing it.

It's important to be approachable because when you put people at ease, you enable them to think and do their best in your presence. It's an essential professional skill that only gets more important as you ascend the ladder into leadership positions and is expected of managers by their employees. According to a recent Gallup research report, managers who are open and approachable have more engaged employees. "Among employees who strongly agree that they can approach their manager with any type of question, 54 percent are engaged. When employees strongly disagree, only 2 percent are engaged, while 65 percent are actively disengaged."

Approachable people also have an information advantage over those who are more difficult to talk to. If you're a skilled conversationalist and able to keep up a good rapport with people, you'll get the scoop earlier than those not as skilled. Employees will trust you more, and interviewees will be more likely to open up to you. You'll have a stronger network and more loyalty from your team.

So, how do you become more approachable?

  1. Make the first move. Standing to the side or sitting at your desk waiting for someone to stop by and strike up a conversation isn't going to get you anywhere. You have to initiate contact: it will show people that you're sociable if you're the one to approach first. When you meet someone, put out your hand first and make eye-contact. Then, the trick? Have a great "go to" question to use as an opening to get the conversation started. Try picking one from Minda Zetlin's list of foolproof ways to start a conversation with anyone.
  2. Listen carefully. Not only is it important to know your employees' thoughts on the issue at hand, but showing them that you pay attention to what they say will make them more likely to approach you in the future. Being able to really hear what people are saying and responding specifically to the issues they've brought up makes others feel that you're invested in them and their opinions.
  3. Share. When you're willing to give something, you're more likely to get something in return. You should be prepared to share your perspective on a business issue or industry trend and then invite others to respond. You can also share things about yourself that might make it easier for people to relate to you such as where you find travel deals online or blogs you follow.
  4. Make it professionally personal. There are potential connections between people and issues everywhere you look in business. Finding something that you can continually talk about with others--especially with people in important relationships such as your boss, your assistant, and your primary client. Funny kid stories and business books are common. Other topics include global events from part of the world and market trends. Finding common ground can make it easier to connect with someone continually over time. This might be especially important with international colleagues or coworkers that you don't see often but want to have a go-to conversation topic handy. It's also important before you meet a new client to ask people who know them what they're like, what they're interested in, to have some ready-made topics or questions.
  5. Note your non-verbals. Non-verbal communications are all of the things you're saying with your body and posture without speaking. It's your relaxed position in your chair, your smile, your nods and eye contact. You can inadvertently shut down a conversation by glancing at your phone and fidgeting.
  6. Keep a running list of questions to ask. Something basic like "how do you see that idea working?" is a good starter question that will lead to a fruitful conversation. You can also rotate questions on issues that impact many or all businesses such as gas prices, interest rates, and the availability of skill labor.

If you're struggling with approachability because of persistent shyness or fear of appearing vulnerable, you can still overcome the hurdle breaking the practices down into smaller steps and setting incremental goals for yourself that include practicing with people outside of work--on a plane, in line at the store, or in your neighborhood. For example, a micro-step for number 1 might be making the first move with one person at one event. The easiest way to do this is to scan the room for anyone else who is standing alone. Being approachable doesn't mean changing your core personality, it's simply a way to ensure that more people have access to you and what you have to offer.

Becoming more approachable will have numerous benefits in your career. You'll gain access to more information faster and grow your network by being known as someone who is interesting and engaging. Awareness of the importance of being approachable is a starting point. Then, these six tips can help you build that awareness and the skills you need to sustain and invite future conversations around the office.

Published on: Jul 22, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.