Published on: June 4, 2013by Michael Sansolo
Back in my college days I landed a plum summer job in the accounting office of a travel wholesaler. Though I felt more than capable of doing the work, there was one key skill I had to learn really, really fast: how to work an adding machine without looking at the keys.
Until I could do that, I was pretty much incompetent. (A lesson that caused me to seriously study typing - keyboarding - to help with my one time newspaper career.)
Luckily for my bosses at both the travel wholesaler and newspaper, I understood the importance of those basic keyboarding skills. It was a lucky realization for me because without those basic skills I might not have kept either job.
Today I worry that there are some basic skills that aren’t talked about near enough that will handicap companies and individuals.
Last week, Kevin ran an interesting article about how young people have no idea how to address a letter. That’s an interesting shortcoming, but honestly it’s one that I doubt will stop any career in its tracks. The mail isn’t that important anymore and there is a template for letters and labels in Microsoft Word for exactly this reason.
But the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! Finance ran a story about an even bigger issue for today’s workers that no template, app or wizard could fix. And it’s one that had better quickly become part of every training session.
It’s simple: how to make eye contact.
Let’s start by getting over the age thing because I don’t think this is a problem for generations X or Y exclusively. Parents and bosses have probably emphasized attentive greetings and eye-to-eye contact for millennia and many young people (me included) have struggled to learn the lesson.
Today the challenge of eye contact is greater than ever because now we all have smart phone vibrations reminding us that someone or something else needs attention. It’s not just vibrations reminding us of Tweets, texts and e-mails. Today we even steal a glance at the phone to get the time since fewer of us than ever are wearing watches.
That’s bad for connections and that makes it bad for business.
In this distracted environment eye contact is becoming ever more important. The Journal article, which you can read here, said adults make eye contact anywhere from 30% to 60% of the time in conversation, when 60-70% is what’s necessary for true connections. The better the eye contact, the better the focus and the impact of your words.
The article demonstrates that eye contact is actually a fairly complex task. In group discussions, the speaker should limit eye contact to 3 or 5 seconds per person compared to seven to 10 seconds in one-on-one conversation. Just as too little eye contact can communicate disinterest or worse, too much can also become a little creepy.
Likewise, the type of strong eye contact welcome in some cultures is seen as disrespectful and unwelcome by others cultures. In short, this is complex stuff. And that’s why it matters so much at every level of industry - from the store floor to the executive suite. It’s why this needs to become a staple of training because it’s a skill that’s under increased assault with every new app.
In many ways, the power of eye contact might matter more today than ever because we are more distracted than ever. So while it might make sense to emphasize this skill to younger staffers we need to keep in mind that it’s not just 20-somethings who have the Pavlovian response to pull out their smart phone at the first vibration.
Competitive advantage can come anywhere - even knowing how to go eye-to eye.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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