Life101 Adulting Series
When I asked students what skills they hope to gain from our Life101 class, the most popular answer had something to do with money handling, but a close second involved getting along with people. Communication. Body Language.
Isn’t it interesting that in this social media generation, where my students are connected via their smartphones to each other 24 hours a day, they lack face-to-face communication skills? I’m glad they recognize it, but fixing it isn’t easy.
In our very first Life101 class of the semester, I asked students to evaluate the ways they communicate by interacting with their fellow students.
The office party
We first simulated an “office party” — this was their handshake activity. They introduced themselves and shook hands with everyone in the room (including me). I told them someone in the room might be giving them a raise, but they didn’t know who, so be confident and friendly to everyone.
I instructed them to do three things:
Introduce yourself with your full name.
My first week in college, I was at an informal gathering at the campus church, and I introduced myself by first name to one of the campus ministers. I vividly remember her asking, “And what is your last name?”
I thought this strange; I wasn’t exactly from a well-known family in Boston, but she explained that she always remembered people better when she knew their full name. I’ve never forgotten that maxim, and now I always introduce myself with my full name.
Repeat their name back to them.
“Sarah Smith, it is a pleasure to meet you.”
The kids thought this felt awkward, but I made them do it anyway. By the end of this ten-minute simulation, I knew every student by name and most of them knew each other too. Names are important, and knowing (and pronouncing them) correctly indicates respect and helps trigger recognition for future meetings. Always repeat a new name back; hearing it in their voice and then your own helps a ton in cementing it in your memory. It also confirms you heard them right.
Before you exit an interaction, repeat the name again. If you’ve already forgotten it, ask again: “Remind me of your name one more time? Sarah Smith. Thank you. Have a fantastic day.”
Bonus tip: if it’s a person you might meet again, there is value in jotting down the name and a piece of info you might want to remember. I do this when I meet my neighbors, just in a spot in my Bullet Journal. It’s not to be creepy, but it helps immensely in remembering something that furthers the relationship. Usually I write down their dog’s name. I love it when my neighbors remember my dog’s name.
Practice that firm handshake.
I had one student reach vertically over to shake my hand, reminding me of knights kissing ladies’ hands in chivalrous days of old. I lovingly and firmly told her no: women can shake hands with as much confidence as a man. We don’t need to be overly masculine and squeeze too hard, but we also don’t need to be weak.
Look each other in the eye when shaking hands. Practice with someone close to you who can give you feedback. Do you let go too quickly? Squeeze too hard? Are you a limp fish? A good handshake communicates confidence and friendliness, but a weird one can make an encounter awkward quickly.
I lined students up in two lines facing each other for a little “speed dating” activity. I read them a question, and then they spent a minute or two in conversation with their partner. I would then have them freeze and observe something about themselves: eye contact, posture, hand placement. Did it help or hinder their conversation?
Students always struggle with this, especially if they are naturally introverted. I made them stare at their partner for 15 seconds without talking — BOY did they hate that! Yes, too much eye contact is awkward. When you are answering a question, it’s okay to look away a bit as you think through an answer. But it is not okay to look everywhere and never at your partner.
You don’t have stare down your conversation partner like you’re preparing for a sumo match, but when you never look at their face you appear nervous rather than confident. I told my student it’s okay to feel nervous or to not want to be in the conversation, but it is not okay to communicate that via their body language in a professional situation.
“So I should be fake?
One student asked me if he should be fake then – pretend to be something he is not. I told him no, but…if he is meeting someone for the first time, or is in a professional situation such as an interview, meeting a client, or working with a professor, there is little to be gained by actively communicating his own bad attitude.
I told the introverts they don’t need to become extroverts to be successful in their futures, but it’s helpful if they can pretend for small conversations that talking to others isn’t a draining experience.
Where are yours hands? I saw students’ hands in front pockets, back pockets, twirling hair, or talking with their hands. Some even were still carrying phones they were spinning absentmindedly on their pop sockets.
While hand placement is hard (and it really is personality-dependent), you want to communicate a comfort level with the conversation. Definitely avoid crossing arms as this appears aggressive, or doing the one-arm crossover as this can communicate insecurity. Try to limit fidgeting, especially with a phone in your hand. Nothing says, “I don’t want to be here” then checking your iMessages while talking to someone face-to-face. Just leave them at your sides, or gesture with them (but not too flamboyantly!).
What is your posture? My male students tended to have more open, nonchalant poses during these conversations; female students were more closed off or “danced” (swayed back and forth in obvious discomfort). I encouraged my students to be aware of their default posture and make a cognitive effort to change it for the next conversation.
Amy Cuddy does an amazing TED talk on body language and its effect on confidence. I showed my class and they highly recommend it! If my students adopt a certain posture or pose, they can trick their brains into believing they are actually that thing, whether it’s confident or powerful.
So when I tell people about this, that our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes, they say to me, “It feels fake.” Right? So I said, fake it till you make it.Amy Cuddy
Once my students had done a few rounds of conversation with different partners, I asked them to then focus on listening. We have a tendency to spend more brainpower formulating our response than we do listening to our conversation partner.
I see this in the classroom all the time: I start explaining an assignment. A hand shoots up. I finish the explanation, and a student asks something I literally just answered. Students laugh, and that student is embarrassed. It wasn’t that she was distracted — it is just that she put all her brainpower into remembering the question she wanted to ask, and her brain stopped listening and processing my words.
It is hard to listen. We tend to be selfish in our thought patterns, and I am guilty of this too. But making an active effort to listen instead of immediately adding what you would have done in that situation has a two-fold bonus of making the other person feel good (who doesn’t like to be listened to?) and possibly letting you learn something from someone else’s experience.
When your partner is done speaking, restate in your own words to show you understood. Ask a follow-up question. Don’t make the conversation about you.
The last bit of social advice I had for my students was to allow themselves time to think. In the teaching world, we call this “wait time” — the awkward silence after the teacher asks a question but before a student answers.
Silence is often uncomfortable. But I gave my students permission to take a few seconds to formulate a response before diving back in. Especially in an interview situation, the temptation to keep talking to fill the silence is great. A person can be prone to rambling, and not allowing the other person time to respond. An interviewee may speak too quickly due to nervousness.
All of this can be prevented by taking a deep breath and a few seconds to think. You do not have to make eye contact while doing this (in fact, that would make thinking much harder).
For the rest of first quarter, I will assign my students to different groups each class period. They will begin class with a different set of questions. Some will be fun ice breakers (“Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?”). Others will simulate interviews (“Describe a weakness. How do you overcome it?”). Some may be difficult (“What is one thing you fear?”) but lead to deeper relationship growth.
Students generally abhor group work, but for this class I get a lot more buy-in. They recognize that most of the people they will work with in their future won’t be their best friends and often may be strangers. They also recognize that practice makes perfect. So don’t be afraid to practice! And last but not least, don’t forget to…