Good networking depends on our relationships, and our relationships depend on…well, relating. While it’s important to know what to talk about, it’s also important to consider how we interact with others. This is especially important when we engage in a face-to-face conversation with someone.
In the last century we’ve moved from only one option to communicate with someone not physically with us (writing a letter) to a long list of options that includes phone calls, emails, social media, texting, video conferencing, and more. These other forms of communication can be useful, but they are still a proxy for talking in person.
Unfortunately, these other options have stolen some of our practice with face-to-face interaction. It’s important to remember that in-person communication is still the most powerful because there are multiple layers of information that you share when speaking directly to another person, many more than if you choose another medium.
Build Your Empathy Skills
No matter your existing skills in interacting with another person who is right in front of you, it’s important to think about how you can tactically improve your face-to-face communication. There are a host of places where you can tweak and hone your abilities:
We tend to like people who are like us. If you want to make other people feel comfortable around you, find ways to match their general body language and demeanor. If your conversational partner is attentive and perched on the edge of their seat, but you are slouching, there will be a disconnect.
While this technique is often called “mirroring”, I suggest you stay away from trying to copy someone exactly. That often comes across as stiff and awkward. Have a general sense of how the other person is holding their body and align with it. It might feel odd the first few times you are aware of this process, but it will quickly become second nature.
Don’t look like a lunatic, but practice smiling a little more than you do right now. Facial expressions convey much of the information in our interpersonal communication. To see the power of your facial expressions, look at yourself in a mirror and pretend to have different emotions.
An open, easy smile is a universal expression that indicates that we are friendly and engaging. (If you’ve ever tried to talk with someone who is scowling, you know how off-putting the opposite can be). You don’t have to be over-the-top or inauthentic, but as the movie Annie said, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.
In many Western cultures, eye contact demonstrates confidence and trust. If you can’t look your conversational partners in the eye, they might think you have something to hide or that you don’t have confidence in what you are saying. You don’t have to maintain eye contact for a long time, but get comfortable checking in with your conversational partner by making eye contact for 2-3 seconds every few minutes.
Handshakes and Hugs
Physical contact can be important in face-to-face conversations because the other person is standing in front of you. Often, the only physical contact we have with people beyond our family and close friends is a handshake, so it’s an important piece of the puzzle to get right. Have a firm, confident handshake and if you need to practice, ask a friend to help (By the way, men and women should both give the same solid handshake).
And keep your physical contact appropriate. If you are a hugger, but the other person isn’t, respect their comfort level. When in doubt, always dial it back a bit.
Vocal Volume and Pacing
Have you ever considered how you talk? Do you have a tendency to speak softly, loudly, quickly, slowly? Remember, it’s valuable to look at how we’re sharing as well as what we’re saying. For most of our conversations, how we speak is just fine. But when we’re having conversations with new people, it’s valuable to think about how our vocal tone is being perceived.
When I was younger my grandma would yell at me to, “Stop mashing all of your words together so quickly, I can’t understand you.” If the other person can’t understand us, then we aren’t communicating well. If you aren’t sure, ask a friend for some honest feedback.
Vocal Tone and Humor
It might sound strange to talk about vocal tone and humor at the same time, but they’re actually very connected. Modern humor is often focused on irony…i.e., sarcasm. By its very nature, being ironic is based on using the tone of your communication to share information that has an opposite meaning of the words you are using. It depends on the person that you are talking to “getting it”.
Early in a relationship it’s likely that you might not have the proper alignment with your partner, and they might not follow your meaning. Humor is a valuable connector, but make sure everyone is on the same page.
We’ve become an increasingly casual culture in the last few decades. One of the challenges with that casualness is that it can lead to false familiarity. When meeting someone new, it’s hard to remember that they don’t know really know much about us. If we act too familiar around them, it can be off-putting. Whether it’s using a nickname for them too quickly, kicking your feet up on the chair, or looking at your cellphone too much, don’t take a new relationship for granted.
Just the Beginning
These are just a few of the areas where you can begin to improve your communication skills. Don’t expect to master them overnight, but you will see noticeable improvement if you continue to focus on how you engage with people. Even more exciting, you’ll notice an improvement in how others respond to you, which is the true test of communication.