Despite technologies like text and email, good personal or business relationships still hinge on solid face-to-face communication. As the co-owner of the Charleston, South Carolina Money Mailer, Nikki Bernet leans on that principle every day, depending on in-person interactions to keep her business thriving. She breaks down some of her top tips for making face-to-face communication with someone new as smooth as new butter.
1. Perfect your handshake.
You've probably heard that firm handshakes give a good impression, demonstrating confidence. But Bernet says perfecting a handshake is actually much more complicated than Squeeze 101. That's because there are so many connotations related to gender within the gesture. Is a woman with a solid grip being "too aggressive" for a female, for example, or is a man with a more delicate touch "too timid"? And on top of that, the length of the handshake also can show power--the longer you hold on, the more you communicate desired or perceived dominance.
Bernet recommends working toward a happy medium regardless of gender--a handshake that's neither too firm nor limp. Practice on friends, family and coworkers who can give you feedback about how your grip feels. Then, when you are in the moment, try to adjust the handshake based on the person you're with. If a petite gal gives you a good squeeze you weren't expecting, for instance go ahead and firm your grip up a bit, too.
2. Do your homework.
"I always go to the prospect's website," says Bernet. "You can find out where they're from, where they went to school, what their hobbies are, etc."
The information you get online can give you some good topics to open the conversation. Plus, most people enjoy talking about themselves!
And if you don't have a chance to get online? No worries. Just look around. There might be awards or photos in their office, for example. Be observant and you'll find perfectly acceptable subjects to bring up.
3. Ask harder questions.
Bernet's rule is to avoid questions you know the answer to. When the objective is to keep learning something new, you're much more likely to stay interested and engaged, and your conversation partner will get the sense that you're actually invested.
4. Set the expectation from the beginning.
Bernet's opinion is that most people don't like to be sold anything, and psychology backs her up--reactance theory says that the more people are pushed to do something, the more they'll resist it to preserve their own sense of freedom. So to help your listener feel more comfortable, you have to convince them you're not out to make them do anything.
"I always set the stage in terms of saying, 'You allotted me 30 minutes today, thank you very much, and before we get into what I do, to learn more about your business, it's going to be helpful to me because this might not be a right fit for you.'"
Even if you're not out to boost your sales quota and are just talking to Joe Anybody down the street, clarifying in some way that the interaction isn't going to be a power struggle will help Joe feel more like talking.
5. Adjust body language.
Considering Tip 4 above, one of the easiest ways to communicate equality and safety to a conversation partner is to adjust your body language. The golden rule for your own body is simply to use postures, gestures and expressions that, for your given culture, get active listening, energy and understanding across. But Bernet has another trick--props!
"Sometimes I'll pull something out to get them to start leaning forward, so I'm changing their posture and nonverbal communication. Get them engaged. Give them a pen to mark a map. Something. I think you can change that person's body language from a negative to a positive."
And again, science backs up the strategy. Research suggests that the posture you take influences how you feel. So if you can get your conversation partner to open up their bodies and relax, if you can get them physically participating, they'll feel less anxious and more engaged.
6. Let the faults and humor creep in.
Ever feel uncomfortable around a Perfect Penny with her own strict agenda? Yeah, thought so. The more you try to come across as perfect, the more threatened your listener can feel--no one wants to get the impression they're inferior! So tell a story to admit a minor flub you did. Laugh at yourself for not knowing something or spilling your coffee. All your listener wants is to know you're just like them, and playfully admitting imperfections serves that purpose. Remember, authenticity doesn't mean just showing only the good stuff. It means showing flaws and all.
7. Pull on experiences.
"One of the things that I do is speak in terms of other clients that I've helped. [...] I really draw in the experiences of other similar businesses, or just other businesses in general. So I try and create similarities, and I ask for similarities along the way. [...] I think in addressing those deeper questions, if you can use other success stories or stories of other clients in their similar field, I think that always helps, because we don't want to feel like we're the only ones with challenges."
Nobody says you have to be Extrovert Emma to have a successful career. But even introverts should know how to navigate more occasional face-to-face interactions that can yield opportunities, and everybody needs interaction for their health. So look away from the screens. Put down the phone. Connect. Talk next to someone. It's one of the most rewarding ways you can be social, and now, you have these strategies are in your back pocket to help you get it right.