How to Connect with People
I recently flew to Idaho to visit family, and on the flight home, I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman from the small town of St. Anthony, Idaho. He worked on the nearby college campus where I had attended school, and he lamented that the students were not very friendly. I was surprised, as I had loved my time at the university ten years ago. This older gentleman described a lack of eye contact, a blank gaze, and an aloofness to people around them – and quickly I diagnosed the cause. “It’s the headphones,” I responded. “The students are tuned out to the world because of their headphones.”
I sympathized with him, for I too have noticed the detrimental effect of headphones and cell phones in public areas. Whether its universities, parks, airports, or waiting rooms, people tune out the existing presence of others and instead tune in to their techie devices. Public spaces used to be meeting grounds for conversations and friendship building, but now it is more common to see people sitting alone, jamming out to headphones or swiping at their phones. Eye contact is diminished. Awareness is diminished. Friendliness is diminished. No wonder more people than ever in our society feel isolated, depressed, lonely, and anxious. The bonding communication skills that bind us to all humankind are not developing.
How do you break these habits? Put down your device.
To connect with someone is to be with them in that moment, in that conversation. Whether the conversation is 30 seconds at a drive-thru window or 10 minutes in the doctor’s office waiting room, the human connection is worth the effort. Connecting with people is easy as 1,2,3 – Look, Listen, Respond. *Bonus points for smiling!
Look at the people around you
If you find yourself sitting in a waiting room, look around you for conversation starters. Perhaps you could compliment someone on their sports jersey (Hook ’em Horns!) or on their cute outfit. Even cliche comments about the weather open doors to conversation. Sit near other people, rather than on the complete opposite side of the room. Keep your devices tucked away to signal that you are available to talk. Smile at the other people and staff members, and offer a welcoming smile to people walking through the door.
Listen to their words and body language
If someone takes your offer to discuss the weather, good job! Now you need to talk and listen with them. Listening sounds easy, but it actually takes a concentrated effort. Are you facing the person talking to you, or are you staring at the floor? Listening combines body language with physically hearing. Turning towards people shows that you want a conversation. By looking at them, you can also see their face, their emotions, and their smiles (or frowns). A large portion of human conversation is non-verbal – that means a person’s body language communicates more than the actual words they speak. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, reports that 38% of our human communication is through certain vocal elements (like tone of voice), and 55% is through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). Effective listening allows you to hear a person’s tone of voice and see their body language. This is why looking towards someone is important to connect in a conversation. Our techie world may be “connected,” but online and text interactions cannot fully replicate the bonding connection of being with someone physically. Listening to their words, their tone, and their body language helps you understand their message.
Respond to connect
True listening does not mean that you jump in with your thoughts as soon as the other person breathes; it means you ponder on their words before you respond. If you have taken into account a person’s words, tone, and body language, then you can more fully engage them with your response. Respond in a way that shows you actually listened to them. For example, if Sally mentioned that cold weather reminds her of her childhood home in Minnesota, you could ask her a question about how much snow Minnesota typically receives each year. Or ask a question about her favorite winter sport. Perhaps then you could share your childhood sport memories as well, and just like that, you’ve connected and started an interactive conversation. Hooray! As you talk back and forth, pay attention to the body language of those around you. If you have someone’s attention, you’ll have their eyes, ears, and body facing towards you. If someone continues to turn away from you, speaks only at the ground, or seems rushed to be somewhere else, then perhaps they don’t want to talk at that time.
Connecting through Communication
Communication flows best with a give and take, commenting and good listening, a desire to understand and be understood. This bonding communication seems to be lacking in today’s techie society, and yet it is vital to the well-being of the human race. Just like a handwritten card can be more powerful than an e-mail, an in-person conversation can be more fulfilling than a text. Humans need to feel connected, acknowledged, and visible to others. Connecting with people – even if for a short time – enriches the lives of everyone. So get to talking! And get to listening! And please put down those devices.