Coaching & Development Solutions

Creating The Lego Moment When You Meet Someone



At the Thames Valley Expo in Windsor last month I talked to about 60 people at my exhibit and ran a workshop for another 25. If I'd done the speed networking then I'd have interacted with over 100 people in one day. Many of the conversations were only 2-3 minutes long with only a high level of information exchanged, and it's tempting to say that nothing very meaningful happens in such a short time. However, that's long enough to build the potential for future collaboration.

Princeton research discovered that when we see someone's face we decide how attractive, competent and trustworthy they are within a tenth of a second, and a longer exposure to their face doesn't change these perceptions. It's unclear which characteristics about a face drive these instant evaluations, or to what extent these evaluations can be changed by a proper interaction with someone. It would be natural to want to appear trustworthy and competent to everyone you meet, but Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that generally when we meet someone we either see them as trustworthy or competent, but not both. Groups that are perceived as competent and strong tend to be respected but disliked, while those which are warm and trustworthy are liked, but not respected. If this theory is correct it raises the question: is it better to be perceived as trustworthy or competent?

Cuddy believes that trust is more important because if we don't trust someone then we are not ourselves around them. This idea is becoming more common in leadership theories and books. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, states that trust is the cornerstone for any team. In his model once trust is built you can then build other attributes on it until you reach a high performing team. This idea resonated with me because when I've been in teams with little trust it was difficult to perform even the simplest jobs. Infighting, lack of commitment or hidden agendas would sabotage our efforts. As a coach and facilitator I find that creating trust is critical to working with any client, and in team building programs I start with exercises to enable the attendees to open up and share with each other to do this. A different take on trust, or forming a connection with someone, focuses on our physical presence.

Mark Bowden is a body language expert whose theories are based on evolutionary psychology. He suggests that you stand with legs slightly apart, arms spread at naval height and palms facing upwards. This shows you have no weapons and sends a message of friendship to the brain stem, or the reptilian part of our brain. Bowden accepts this can seem manipulative and inauthentic, but argues this is the only way to create a connection with another person. I'm uncomfortable with that idea, but also aware that different strands of research show a link between your body position and mental state. It's been well reported that smiling makes you happy, and another strand of Cuddy's research has demonstrated that taking certain body positions ("Power Poses") makes you more confident and comfortable with risk. So is there a body position which not only makes you seem more trustworthy, but actually does make you more trustworthy?

I'm not aware of any research which answers that question, but I know what helps me connect with someone. I tend to follow three simple rules:

  • Assume that the will be interesting to talk to
  • Mentally block out the other sounds and sights if the room is busy
  • Share information which connects to their interests

My initial assumption makes me more genuinely curious about the person I'm talking to, and by being open I'm more likely to encourage them to do the same. When this works a conversation with a stranger can feel like two pieces of Lego clicking together: simple, quick and strong. Of course, it doesn't work all of the time. In one of the first conversations I had at the Windsor Expo a gentleman told me that he'd been training people at the most important companies in the UK for decades, and was amazed by their ignorance. He informed me that he knew he had the answers for all of their problems, and we didn't talk for very long. The next conversation was markedly different. A businesswoman mentioned that she needed to change her portfolio of interests and become like a "spider at the centre of a large web”, which she felt was odd since she was really afraid of spiders. I simply reflected what I'd heard by asking "So you need to become what you fear?” and she suddenly understood why this change was so hard.

About The Author

Alasdair Graham is the founder of Apex Discovery and a coach who helps leaders and businesses grow. If you found this blog post useful then please share it.

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