However much we think we know about communications there is always new knowledge and skills which can improve us. First impressions and dealing with silence are things you can manage to your advantage.
by Ella Minty
If cognitive bias, heuristics and conscious bias are terms you are not very familiar with or terms which sound too academic to be applied to day to day situations, you may wish to quickly familiarise yourself with the concepts because, trust me, all our communication processes are, actually, meant to succeed or fail based on these concepts.
Daniel Kahneman’s seminal work on the influence of cognitive bias and heuristics laid the foundation of behavioural sciences being applied outside the psychology and neuroscience fields – his work was recognised in 2002 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences for “having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty".
Confirmation bias is the first hurdle we need to pass before we can get any further and, actually, if our hosts come to greet us in the reception area, their first impressions will have already been made.
The way we sit, the way we walk, the way we shake hands/smile or say those first few words, will influence the counterpart through the entire meeting: they’ll seek to confirm their initial impression of you. If you "clicked", then it’s great – if you didn’t, then a significant part of your presentation/speech will be made to a non-supportive audience
Everywhere today we read about the importance of body language and how important it is to move your hands, to put them on the table, on the chair, on the ceiling and on the floor etc. Nonsense.
While your words, your body language and the tone of your voice should be aligned, if you start waving about like you’re drowning, then that will only be interpreted as a sign of inferiority (you want to stand out and you need your body to do that), insecurity (by gesticulating a lot you show you exist), and violation of one’s personal space.
I have a brilliant colleague – but I avoid taking him along at important dinners simply because he cannot control his body language and "excitement". Last week I made the mistake to take him along and, apart from leaning into the Client while speaking with him, he also thought that by picking up the starter knife from the table and using it to emphasise the points he was making (as an elongation of his arm) would be a good thing: it wasn’t.
Do your homework before you meet someone for the first time – what do you have in common as persons and/or as professionals? Is it a passion for X? A commitment to Y? Did you attend a similar university? Did you work in the same place (from a geographical perspective)? You need a certain level of ice breakers to build rapport and shift that potential conscious bias that your counterpart may experience with regard to your person.
Steer clear from personal topics such as "do you have a family" or "where/how is your husband/wife" or "where do your children go to school" – these are far too touchy to delve into with an almost perfect stranger.
If your counterpart says something you disagree with, make your argument constructive and positive and, at all times, be respectful and courteous: make it clear that you understand their views, however your experience/expertise indicates that "etc. etc. etc.". Use verifiable and valid arguments, not assumptions and hearsay.
A last point which will help you "own" a room is your ability to use the silence, especially the others’. Don’t fill the gaping void, don’t blurt out non-sense, don’t look for space fillers: they will all be interpreted as a sign of weakness or insecurity or, even worse, backtracking. Own the silence and let it work for you – you’ll be amazed at what it can do. "
Ella Minty is Reputation Management and Stakeholder Engagement Director
image via History in Moments