Mar 26 '20

Social distancing: Quality engagement despite physical distance

By: Curtis Sprouse

March 2020

The uncertainty we are all facing is fascinating. For the first time in my life and the lives of many, we are very unsure of what tomorrow will bring or how our lives will be impacted in the near and distant future. The uncertainty is dynamic as it involves personal health, and the health of people we know, care for, and love. It includes personal economics on a micro and macro level. Will my employer be dramatically impacted by the situation? How will we pay our bills if I do not go back to work for months or if my job is eliminated? Will my retirement plan need to change, and will businesses I enjoy and rely upon be able to survive?

Many states now have restrictions that significantly limit people's abilities to travel and gather. We have closed our universities, public and private schools, and businesses. Employers are sending people home and doing their best to run operations with limited crews on-site or in facilities. Many people are adapting to working from home, quickly developing new ways of working in a very foreign environment.

Considering these changes, we need to think about how we will collaborate, communicate, and socialize. Life and business will continue, and we need to do our best to adapt given this challenging time.

Even in the best of times, people struggle to socialize, collaborate, and communicate effectively. We should review the non-verbal and verbal foundations of these concepts.

Individuals with strong social skills like to collaborate and tend to demonstrate excellent communication skills, transmitting information nonverbally. Let’s look at what they do and how we can adapt to bolster our own social tendencies.

When we examine each component of highly effective communicators, we find that much of what effective communicators do has little to do with what they say, but how they interact and present themselves while communicating. Many components of highly effective communication are lost and or limited over the phone or even during a video session. Understanding these key factors becomes more important as we are all forced to practice social distancing.

In a successful and healthy personal interaction, highly effective people:

1. Relax, they may take a few deep, slow breaths before they engage others. They appear confident and happy.

2. Have clear purpose and intent; they know why they are engaging you. It could simply be that they display friendliness or compassion. In most work situations, kindness is combined with a desire to learn, influence, resolve, direct, or build consensus.

3. Smile, with shoulders back, standing tall with hands visible, typically extending hands to shake or hug the other person.

4. Make and hold eye contact, focus on the conversational partner.

5. Utilize an effective tone. Effective communicators open a conversation with a pleasant soft, inviting, and upbeat voice, moderating tone effectively throughout the conversation. Social people say hello, how are YOU, using your name or offering theirs as they ask for yours. Getting to the “you” question and personalizing interest will help to build an immediate connection comfortably.

6. Ask questions that ignite conversations with close attention to the others' body language which signals and confirm they have hit on a topic of interest. Does the person smile, raise an eyebrow, or viably relax? Do they look eager to respond? In a business conversation, it would now be time to move to the agenda. The key topics focus of the meeting, and discussion that will drive a decision and action.

7. Move with purpose, not making quick movements with their body or head. They are focused when they are trying to emphasize a point, using a change in vocal tone to draw their audience in.

8. Strengthen points by using hand gestures. For example, the thumbs-up sign denoting a positive or enjoyable situation or the “ok” sign, when things are agreeable or pleasant. Spreading arms apart to signify a large or big item or opportunity or using two fingers close together to signify something small or immaterial.

9. Use you, me, we hand gestures, to signify a connection without touching the person. Open hands palms up extend the hands slowly and gently, bringing your hands to your chest to signify a relationship of you with the other person, or by extending hands again palms up and opening them slightly to show that you include self with those in attendance.

10. Graceful exit, they ask about the future and wish you luck, safety, and or enjoyment with your plans.

Let’s examine how one working from home will need to adapt socialization, communication, and collaboration skills.

Relaxing, taking a deep breath, and settling ourselves is still vital.

1. Purpose and intent are also still critical and are not impacted by the form of communication, personal vs. phone.

2. Tone and volume become very important. Getting to the “you” question has greater value, and elevated emphasis as body language and eye contact is not available.

3. The ignition questions are even more critical as you need to build comfort and engagement through impactful verbal interaction. Asking others how they are is only one element. Good conversationalists give information by telling short, interesting stories that are concrete, credible, emotional with an element of surprise. See the book Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath.

Good storytellers follow a clear, simple structure – i. AND ii. BUT iii. THEREFORE…

Where AND defines a situation, BUT presents tension/conflict in the situation and THEREFORE provides a solution resolution or conclusion. See the book Houston We Have a Narrative, by Randy Olsen.

Example: A simple story about something your child did that was funny, cute, or made you proud can lead to the question. Tell me about your son or daughter, how are they doing with their sports, music, etc.? Not everyone has children, but everyone has something they care about or like. How was your golf trip? Did you have fun skiing? Has your garden come in the way you expected? Have you read any good books? How was the concert? Did you like that restaurant?

Finding these topics will lead you to the ignition questions or ignition dialogue where the other person engages by asking you questions. Keeping others engaged will be bolstered by your tone, speed, and volume. You will need to replace hand and body gestures (#7 and 8 above) with more intentional and well-positioned changes in vocal cadence and volume. Using breaks is effective in allowing people to take time to think, digest, and respond to what you have said. Listening deeply and intently to what others say is essential. Pay attention to the words they use and the mood they express. If the person seems sad or stressed, be empathetic and sensitive in how you respond. Let them hear that you care and that you are there for them.

4. Ensure a graceful exit. Ask about the other person's plans and follow the same suggestions as above and let them know you look forward to your next conversation.

Consider the following as you embark on an effort to improve relationships and communications in these challenging times. You should limit distractions when on the phone with others, avoiding distractions by the television or stereo, and keeping your cell phone on silent or out of eyeshot. Refrain from multitasking and give your undivided attention. It sounds simple and intuitive but be honest with yourself. How many times have you had a phone conversation where you entirely focused on the other person with NO other distractions? The idea that we effectively multitask is a myth; the conscious brain can do one thing at a time well. When you are exposing yourself to distractions or trying to multitask, you are limiting the quality and time you are listening to or focusing on the conversation.

During this unique time of uncharted territory, we must maintain and build relationships that facilitate effective interactions that aid in advancing relationships and business interests. For those who struggle with social interactions and conversation, it will be harder. Nonetheless, we must all make an effort to improve ourselves and help others. The above outline provides tips, but practice and effort will facilitate progress and improvement. You cannot learn to swim if you do not get in the pool.

In the end, it is simple. Strive to leave people better than you found them. Make sure they know you care by your tone, actions, responses, and attentiveness. Demonstrate a high level of interest in other positions and respect for their views. Challenge others but do so in a manner that builds and strengthens the relationship, letting them see that you are using the opportunity to converse with them to learn, grow and advance the relationship and situation. Developing your communication skills as suggested will strengthen your ability to influence and impact situation regardless of the distance between us.

Note: Scores, profiles, or assessments referenced in this article refer to characteristics defined in the EurekaConnect Behavioral Dynamics program

About the author: Curtis R. Sprouse is the President and CEO of EurekaConnect, LLC. Curtis has spent more than 25 years building companies and consulting for hundreds of the fortune 500 companies.

EurekaConnect, LLC uses proven technologies and data driven solutions that objectively and measurably improve organizational performance. For more information please e-mail: