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 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.