I wanted to share this real life and very funny exercise in teaching your people about personal space. Funny but very relevant in today’s #metoo world! As I’ve watched Joe Biden struggle with the complaints against him for being over ‘touchy’, it reminded me of an experience I had many years ago when I was Personnel Manager in a food company. For anyone who hasn’t read about the complaint against Joe, he has a habit of standing behind people, putting his hands on their shoulders and kissing the back of their heads or smelling their hair. Even writing that sentence suggests the practice is way beyond OK.
Our foodie sales reps were mostly male and they were selling mostly to female buyers. Complaints became so bad about inappropriate language, inappropriate comments; inappropriate ‘touching’ that we had to urgently investigate. I knew all these guys; they were mostly young, a bit loud and boisterous for sure but it was a shock to hear how unprofessional they were behaving. We scheduled a one day off-site with an amazing woman who specialised in teaching body language. She took us through several eye-opening exercises. To ensure we had a balance of male and female attendees a few female managers were added to the list. I was one of those managers. I’ll try and explain the exercises so you can use them in your business if you feel the need.
Round 1: Each female was ‘paired’ with a male. The women were to stand in a line against one wall – men to stand against the opposite wall. They were to slowly walk towards their female partner and STOP the second they saw any kind of movement or reaction. No talking was allowed and no hand movements were permitted. Of the 10 males only one picked up the ‘stop’ signal from his partner. The rest of the men marched bravely on until they were virtually nose to nose with their person.
During the debrief the men who failed to stop said loudly and clearly that they saw NO signs of discomfort. Yet when the women were asked, they felt they were furiously blinking or glaring or whatever sign they were giving to back off.
Round 2: Same partners but this time the women were allowed to raise a hand when they wanted their partner to stop. No talking again. The men were staggered at how quickly the women raised their hands.
Being in business demands professional behaviour. In Joe Biden’s case, he is clearly a touchy feely person. Photos have surfaced of him touching men in exactly the same way he touches women. I’m sure he feels that he is being affectionate; some women when interviewed said they were OK with what he does – it was just Joe being Joe. However, some women said they felt distinctly uncomfortable. I wonder if the men he does the same thing to feel uncomfortable also? In the world of #metoo it behoves all of us to be aware of people’s spatial comfort, so here are a few of the ‘signs’.
As you walk forward and the person starts backing off – STOP.
When you are both sitting – if you lean in and the person leans away – STOP.
If you go to touch someone and they stiffen or move away – STOP.
If you see flickering eyes when you are talking to someone – back away slightly.
These are just a few of the micro signs of discomfort. I’m sure there are many more, but if you watch for these the next time you are talking to someone, you will now be more aware of that person’s comfort levels around their space. We are all different, what makes one person feel uncomfortable may be water off a duck’s back to another. Respect the differences and react accordingly. And don’t say, as Joe Biden did ‘oh well I’m just a touchy feely sort of person’ which roughly translated means – get over it’. In business (and possibly in the run for the presidency) that attitude could be a career ending attitude.
1. Traditionally we shake people’s hands – some people don’t even like doing that. If you’ve ever been in a rest room you will be staggered at the number of people who do not wash their hands after using the facilities. Would you want to shake that person’s hand? A few of our rugby teams are now doing the fist-pump instead. I would prefer that also.
2. Do not hug someone unless you know they are OK with that.
3. Do not sit on a person’s desk to talk to them unless you know they are OK with that.
4. Do not touch them ANYWHERE other than offering a hand shake if you’ve just met them.
5. Do not touch ANYONE anywhere other than the forearm unless you know it’s OK. The forearm apparently is the only place on a person’s body that even the most ardent ‘don’t touch me’ people can accept.
So there you have it. Just a few thoughts on appropriate behaviour in a world where we may think our way is the only way. Its really just about respect.‘Just imagine how different the world could be if we all spoke to everyone with respect and kindness.’’ – Holly Branson
Ann Andrews CSP
Speaker, author, profiler, Life Member NSANZ
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