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About a year ago, I was shopping for a used car. I had a budget and certain criteria—big enough for an 85-pound dog, small enough to squeeze into Manhattan parking spaces. But what I really wanted was reliability. I am no auto mechanic, not even close, and I wanted peace of mind above speed and any other sexy bells and whistles. I tried to convey all this to the salesperson at a large dealership. He sat me down in his office, leaned back in his chair and asked me to describe my ideal wheels. While I spoke, he snapped his pen cap open and shut. He spun around in his seat to check available vehicles on his computer, leaving me staring at his backside and balding head for nearly five minutes. Then, as if he’d missed 90 percent of what I’d said, he took me out back to see a car above my budget and loaded with enough gadgets to make a tech geek’s head spin.
Needless to say, I left without a car. Although I’d chosen this dealership because my research indicated the automaker had a solid record of reliability, my 10-minute interaction with the salesperson left me apprehensive about what I was getting myself into. In a nutshell, I didn’t trust him.
Trust. It can take years to build and just a few seconds to destroy. It’s a fragile, fickle emotion, the instigator of irrational decisions and spontaneous partnerships. It’s at the heart of what people mean when they say, “Go with your gut.” How trustworthy is the woman across the table? Do you want to get in bed with this company? Should you do the deal? How much you trust a colleague or potential business partner will shape the nature of your relationship.
On the flipside, trust is one of the most powerful tools a CEO or manager can use to create positive office dynamics and strengthen business relationships. Can you persuade a new client to have faith in your judgment even though you’ve only just met? Can you instill enough trust in your employees that they will follow your lead, no matter how difficult your game plan?
"The most successful businesspeople know how to create an aura of trust without ever saying a word," says Rick Miller, a former president of AT&T Global Services and founder of Choices & Success, a business consulting firm in Morristown, N.J. “Trust is about creating an emotional bond with the other person,” he explains. “That starts from the minute you make contact. Be aware in a visual sense of how you are perceived. Little things like loosening the tie and rolling up your sleeves can make you immediately less intimidating and easier for the other person to relate to.” (During political campaigns, candidates often remove their suit jackets and push their sleeves above their elbows to work the crowds—shaking, patting, waving—as if to say, “Trust me, I’m one of you.”)
Appearances matter and first impressions are powerful, but there’s more to maximizing those first few minutes after meeting someone than just dressing the part. Experts say the subtle ways in which you gesture and position your body during a business exchange can make or break the deal. Looking for pointers? Start here.
Give it 40 percent.
One basic tool for nonverbal communication is eye contact: How frequently you connect with another person’s gaze and how long you hold that connection plays a crucial role in winning over a client’s confidence.
“As a general rule, you should be making eye contact 40 to 70 percent of the time while you are speaking,” says G. Jack Brown, M.D., a body language expert and founder of Body Language Success in Las Vegas. “It lets the other person know you are interested without being mistaken as confrontational.” To avoid any sense of aggression (which direct eye contact can sometimes cause), focus your gaze on a small, imaginary box outlining the periphery of the other person’s eyes, Brown advises.
On the other hand, skipping eye contact altogether implies mistrust and a lack of interest, especially if you favor staring at the other person’s shirt or tie instead—a frequent mistake people make when they’re nervous. Kerry Maniscalco is a recruiter for high-end accessories company Coach in New York City. As she puts it, “I interview people for a living.” Over the years, she has learned to spot inflated résumés and candidates who are hiding something.
One recent interview stands out in Maniscalco’s mind. “I had this guy in my office and I was asking him behavioral-type questions—How do you work in a team environment? What are some examples of how you’ve managed groups of people?—and the more I probed, the harder he stared at my left shoulder. I mean, he was fixated on it. It got to the point where I started getting self-conscious: Did I spill something on my shirt? I actually began touching my shoulder to be sure there wasn’t something on it!”
Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. The lack of eye contact and misplaced focus made her uneasy, she says.
Then again, sudden direct eye contact can also be a tell that someone is skirting the truth. “Some liars will avoid looking at you, then stare you straight in the eye when a sensitive subject is brought up,” Brown says. “You need to be aware of a sudden change in behavior, which can indicate deceit as much as the action itself.”
Bottom line: Whether you are telling the truth or not, if your body language is sending up red flags, the best résumé in the world won’t save you. Practice answering questions in front of a mirror, making sure to refer back to your reflection regularly, to convey openness and honesty. As Maniscalco points out, “Anyone who is so uneasy in an interview situation that they can’t look me in the eye isn’t going to fare any better in a sales job.”
There’s an irony to the fact that corporate bigwigs are praised for their ability to juggle 10 things at once. These days, if you don’t have at least two phones, a pager and an intimate relationship with Twitter, you must not be very important.
But the ability to toggle between gadgets while surfing the morning news on the Internet and Skyping with a colleague on the other coast has its limitations: It can make you seem less engaged during an important business negotiation, and even less trustworthy.
“In our culture, multitasking is celebrated as the key to success, but it can have an awful impact if you do it at the wrong time,” says Miller of Choices & Success. Your words may be telling clients that you’re interested in what they have to say, but your body language indicates that you are distracted and insincere. “You need to put away the appointment book, close your email and have someone answer your calls,” Miller adds. “Never underestimate the importance of showing someone respect through your actions, not just your words.”
And speaking of words, choose them wisely. Most salespeople are prepped with five or six key points they need to make in the 30 minutes they have to present to a client. Beware of going on autopilot, however. “Avoid the used-car salesman pitch at all costs—‘I know exactly what you need, and I’m going to tell you,’ ” Miller says. “You’ve got to practice what I call ‘whole-body listening’—slow down and really pay attention to how your presentation is being received by the client.” Is she leaning away from you as you speak? Does he perk up when you mention a particular feature of the product or a demographic it appeals to?
“If you try and squeeze in all those prepared points in 30 minutes, you’ll come across like a jackhammer,” Miller says. “The most successful salespeople are the ones who can identify which points matter to a particular client and focus on just two or three things that make a difference.”
Set the scene.
You’ve established eye contact and you’re 100 percent focused. Now, turn your office into a trust vault.
“The environment you work in is a nonverbal way for you to communicate certain things about yourself,” Brown says. “For instance, I advise clients to replace traditional wood desks or tables with glass ones. Research shows that the more a person’s body is hidden, the less trustworthy he or she is perceived to be.”
Can’t do away with the company furniture? Move your seat so you are sitting on the same side of the table as your business contact. This alone reaped dividends for a group of financial advisers working with Amy Ayoub, a public-speaking coach in Las Vegas who brought in Brown to teach a body language class.
“It was just small changes—taking their hands out of their pockets when they talked and moving their chairs so they were sitting next to clients, not opposite them—that improved their business performance,” Ayoub says. “They said it improved their own comfort level and in turn made their clients more comfortable and open to their relationship.”
Other ways to signal “trust” without saying a word: Place your hands above the table, and employ “palms up” gestures during your conversation, viewed as signs of honesty. Uncross your arms and legs; if you’re standing, widen your feet, because open postures encourage dialogue and communication with the other person. Don’t lean back in your chair—a definite indicator of disengagement, Brown says—but then again, don’t look as if you’re ready to leap out of your seat either.
“There’s a definite type [of person] I get, usually for more senior position interviews,” says Maniscalco, the Coach recruiter. “These guys lean really far forward in their chair, like they are ready to come across the table at me. It’s too aggressive. Sometimes, for higher-level positions, people make the mistake of thinking they need to dominate the interview in order to show they can handle the job.” These tend to be the people with too-firm a handshake as well, she adds.
Put meaning in your greeting.
There are times when your business dealings are less formal than an in-office meeting or boardroom conference call. Perhaps you are chatting up a potential customer during an industry cocktail party. Or maybe you bump into the CEO of a company on your A-list of new clients at an awards event.
The way you greet someone sets the tone immediately for the interaction that follows. “You want to make the other person feel like they are the only thing in the world that matters to you at that moment,” Brown says. Speak with your body by pointing your head, shoulders and feet directly at the other person. When you grasp their hand to shake it, look them—you got it—in the eyes. “I can’t tell you the number of executives who avoid eye contact altogether during a handshake,” Brown says. “That’s such a mistake. They are missing the key moment in which to show the other person respect.”
After the initial meet and greet, continue to keep your body facing the other person to hold his or her attention. One caveat: When men meet, each may want to face the other directly during a handshake and then turn about 20 degrees to one side as they continue speaking because certain men find a direct face-to-face conversation bordering on confrontational.
Manage your monologue.
The adage “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” is right on target, Miller says. “The tone and volume of your voice are so important. Words have energy. Too often, people try to close a deal by sounding more authoritative—raising their voices, using forceful words.” It’s almost always a turnoff, Miller believes, “You can actually see people recoil.”
Instead, soften your voice and leave enough pauses in the conversation so the other person feels as if he or she has space to think and respond. “Your client or customer needs to feel like they are being heard,” Miller says. “How can you trust someone if they don’t even hear you?”
P.S. I got my car!
My quest for a car continued after the first foray into that auto dealership. A few weeks later, I found myself walking side by side through another pre-owned car lot with a sales guy who understood my priorities and asked at least as many questions as he answered.
When I asked whether, really, truly, this price was the best he could do on a model I’d been favoring, he leaned in, looked me in the eye and said, “You know, I think we can do a little better.” I was sold.