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By Pete Johnson, HP.com Chief Architect One side effect of spending 10+ years as a teleworker and having most of my interaction with people over the phone is that, on the rare occasion when I do get a chance to meet people face to face, I […]

By Pete Johnson, HP.com Chief Architect

One side effect of spending 10+ years as a teleworker and having most of my interaction with people over the phone is that, on the rare occasion when I do get a chance to meet people face to face, I find I notice visual cues a lot more than I did when I was in the office every day.

A furrowed brow or an extended sigh stands out a lot more when you are used to being limited to voice inflection in interpreting someone’s frustration about or acceptance to something you are presenting.  I realize now how lousy I was at it before, but in a “you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone” kind of way, I find I end up paying a lot of attention to it now.

Recently, I saw a use of body language I’d never seen before involving a sandwich.

In hindsight, it appeared to be a conscious choice that made a potentially uncomfortable situation more relaxed.

I was in an offsite meeting with roughly 30 coworkers to plan a variety of activities that were to occur over the following 18 months.  With staff located all over the world, the travel costs of such gatherings are expensive, so we try to choose a location that will enable us to have some time with a senior manager of some sort, thereby gaining us something extra out of the trip.

The upper managers try very hard to stay engaged with their workforce (who tend to be spread out across a dozen or so time zones) through regular conference calls.  A phone conversation with a couple hundred people isn’t conducive to a high degree of interactivity, though, so when my boss gets a chance to have someone of that stature speak live before a smaller group, she jumps at it.  Afterwards, people generally feel more connected to how the goals of our group fit in with the larger strategies, and the senior people seem a lot more human.  Everybody wins.

During this particular meeting, we arranged to have a Senior Vice President (SVP) drop by and have lunch with us.  Catering services brought a standard sandwich buffet with a few side dishes to choose from and a variety of soft drinks.  The SVP sat in the middle of the U-shaped conference table arrangement we set up for the main part of the meeting and let us ask him questions with no prearranged agenda.

Then something interesting happened.  Every time somebody asked a question, the SVP put something in his mouth. Easy questions got a quick sip of cola while harder questions corresponded to progressively larger bites of his turkey sandwich.

Why would someone do this?

manners.pngManners that our mothers drilled into our heads since birth teach us that it isn’t polite to speak with your mouth full. We all know this and grant someone a delayed response when this situation arises. Very cleverly, this SVP used this well-known social rule to build natural pauses into the conversation. This gave him time to formulate an intelligent response to harder questions in a more relaxed manner as opposed to remaining silent for 15 seconds while staring at the ceiling before answering.

The result was well thought out answers and comfortable feelings absent occasional awkwardness. Even though not everybody liked the answers, everybody liked the SVP a lot more when he left the room than they did when he entered it. It’s a great trick, and now I know to look for more things like that when the higher ups are hanging out for lunch.

How about you? What are the most important visual cues you try to pick up on? Are there movements you intentionally use to send certain signals?

(sandwich photo credit: Flickr user amanky)

Between creating one of the first web applications ever built within Hewlett-Packard during the mid 1990’s and reaching his current position as HP.com’s Chief Architect, Pete Johnson has worked with over 400 engineers all over the world, written technical articles for publications, and presented at trade shows. He also blogs about how improved non-technical skills can accelerate technical careers.

  1. That sounds like one very savvy SVP! The only SVP interaction I remember from back in corporate land was when one tried to “relate” to us worker bees by describing the angst he went thru…dealing with filling his Jaguar with gas. As his car could probably have paid for his audience’s mortgages, this attempt flew like a lead balloon. :)

    However, one effective communication technique that works quite well is allowing the listener to tell the speaker, “this is what I heard you say” (and then repeat back what was gotten out of the conversation). At the end, the listener says, “Did I miss something?” to which the speaker has an opportunity to fix any miscommunications.

    Done several times, back and forth, it really helps boil down the main essence of a conversation and ensure everyone is on the same page.

    Enjoy,

    Barbara

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  2. I am so craving a sandwich right now.

    Bread… noooo… Evil carbs.

    Gah.

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  3. Jim Johnson Monday, March 3, 2008

    I am not a Bellsouth employee but I was a svp of large printing companies. This gets away from meetings but I would like to explain a hiring technique I used when choosing managers for our various departments. The sandwich trick reminded me of this method. It would always come down to two or three candidates as far as qualifications and years of exsperience so I always planned a lunch with each candidate asking them to drive and I always picked a the place to eat that was at least a 20 minute drive. The way he/she handled themselves in traffic told me things that wouldn’t be on their resume. Were they relaxed or constantly changing lanes. Did they drive the speed limit or were they constantly changing lanes. What condition inside was the car we were driving in such as a back seat that was used for trash. Was the inside neat and tidy. Were papers thrown up on the dash. I had a score sheet that I used and each person had their own score. When everything else was equal the person with the highest score got the job. In twenty years of using this method I never hired the wrong employee.

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  4. @Barbara – I too am a big fan of reflective listening, especially in heated situations or when there is a language barrier involved. I can’t relate to problems with my Jaguar either although my first car was a non-exploding Ford Pinto 8).

    @Jim – Very interesting technique indeed, and I’m not just writing that because you’re my uncle. It’s along the line of thinking that puts more emphasis on the lunch and how people interact with their prospective teammates there than the answers given in the formal interview.

    Pete Johnson
    HP.com Chief Architect
    Personal blog: http://nerdguru.net

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  5. Now that’s a novel approach; a very nice one at that.

    As a professor teaching business practices, I try to take my students on field trips to see designers working in professional environments. The principals of studios are so gracious with their time, even though I know it takes away working hours from their day(s). The students love to soak it all in and will often hang around after a formal presentation or tour to ask questions and try to make an individual impression. As a by-stander, I can see when our host is ready to get on with his day, eager to get back to work; perhaps a little better than my students. Even the typical “Well, it’s been great …” wrap-up comments tend to go ignored in my students’ zeal to get more info while we’re there. It’s a bit difficult to be aware of the fact that we’re overstaying our welcome.

    I heard an interesting solution to this as a child. We’d have a Buddhist priest visit our extended family several times a year. The priest let us in on a secret: something about having tea signaled that it was time for the visit to be up. If the priest asked for tea, then we all knew he was ready to go. If my aunt offered tea, it was a signal to the priest that we were ready for him to go. If he wasn’t ready to go, he’d wave off the tea, “Not yet, not yet..” (or, ask for yet another cup of tea, something like that … ). It was a bit of a choreographed interaction, and I’m not sure if this was universal, or just specific to this one individual. I tend to not like to work SO indirectly, but there’s a bit of cheeky charm to this approach…

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  6. Great post Pete. What a great way to give yourself a little more time to think of a good answer to a question. Love it.

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  7. Kevin Adamson Tuesday, March 4, 2008

    This is a classic trick for pacing conversation. When I imagine it in practice I keep thinking of Jules from “Pulp Fiction” drinking Brett’s entire Big Kahuna Sprite in one sip when trying to create a dramatic pause in his interrogation cadence (before quoting Ezekiel 25:17 and shooting him). Might be an esoteric reference, but pretty funny if you think of it in relation to this technique.

    I’ve been trying to get better at being comfortable with silent eye contact during business and personal conversations(you know, for when I don’t have a sandwich handy…). I concentrate on not looking away from people’s eyes while trying to formulate my answers and while actually speaking them.

    I realized how important this was when I was speaking with a girl I met recently who kept staring at my shoulder when she would respond to my questions. I didn’t really know her well enough to ask her if I had a Tony Montana-sized mountain of white stuff on my shoulder, but it got so bad that I had to ask anyway. She just said she had trouble with eye contact because she had inferiority issues and that I was dandruff-free. What a relief… And what an insight into her personality. And I learned a very valuable lesson about what type of messages my own conversation habits were sending.

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  8. Controlling the pace of a conversation is a classic way of asserting dominance. These kind of techniques don’t come naturally to people so it’s cool to have them pointed out to you. Nice article!

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  9. Pete, you are a veritable genius. I speak in seminars for a living and reading body language is truly an art. Watching people and their physiological responses to external stimuli can tell one a lot. I too have used the sandwich pause on occasion and find it to be another arrow in my business quiver. Thanks for the insight!

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  10. [...] performance review or uber-frustrating meeting, rather than spilling forth with under-cooked ideas. Sandwich Pause Trick When Talking to Real People [Web Worker [...]

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