In a previous post I discussed some preliminary work I’ve been doing on the life cycle of a business relationship. I posited that the first stage, pretty clearly, is the relationship-establishing or deal-killing friend-or-foe analysis. In other words, neuroscience tells us, the first thing that people do when they get together is decide do I feel comfortable with this person or not?   Is this person a friend or a foe?

The second stage is the credibility stage. That’s where we decide does this person on the other side of the table know what he/she/they are talking about? That process can take a little to a lot longer, depending on the cultures involved (how fast people get down to business) and the deliberate opportunities for establishing the same.

Once the first two phases are accomplished, the work can get underway and the third phase, the trust phase, begins. It’s the longest of the three phases, simply because trust takes time to establish. We want to see how you react under different conditions, and under stress, and so on.

OK, let’s look at each stage to see if neuroscience can give us some tips on how to influence the relationship and its key issues at that point. We can, of course, leave each stage to chance and rely on our charm and general ability with strangers to make the relationship work. But perhaps you’d prefer to increase the odds from 50-50. And indeed, we might argue that if we leave human relationships to our unconscious minds – our instincts, you might say – then the odds are less than 50-50 in many instances.

One negative influence, for example, is simply the distractions of daily business life. It has become a cliché to notice that we live in an increasingly over-stimulated, 24/7, interruption-prone world. That means that we are constantly pulled away from the present moment into our heads, our mobile phones, and our to-do lists. So when the opportunity comes to meet someone new, the impression that we’re likely to give ranges from “not fully present” to “actively distracted.” And it’s not a good continuum to be on. The other party will unconsciously sense the distraction – or perhaps even consciously – and feel resentment as a result.

Another negative influence comes from our level of nervousness in those sorts of settings in general. If we love meeting new people, then we may be fine. But most of us feel at least a bit self-conscious meeting someone new, and we leak that low-level nervousness to the other person. When we say, shaking hands with our new best friend, “Great to meet you,” and our body language says, “Not feeling so great right now,” then that inconsistency fosters a niggling distrust. And we’re on the way to “foe” – far from the “friend” we wanted to establish.

Finally, we may be upset, angry, or tense about something else. If we take that feeling into the meeting, and share that with our new acquaintances, we should not be surprised at the results. As the old joke has it, if I do something stupid, it’s because I’m having a bad day. If you do something stupid, it’s because of a character flaw.  The other people in the room are going to experience your bad day as a flaw in your personality.

So, to influence that initial friend-or-foe stage, neuroscience tells us the most important message to send with all the conscious and unconscious tools at our disposal is “I’m open to you.” To be open, look to the face first. Are you smiling? Nodding? Are your eyes open? Are your eyebrows raised – except in some Asian cultures where that appears to be rude? These are the facial signals of openness. You don’t have to do them all at once, but to fail to do any of them is to signal unconsciously that you’re not happy to be there.

Moving down the body, is your torso pointed toward the person in question? Are you relatively still and focused on them, or are you half-way in or out the room already? Are your hands protectively blocking your torso, or are they open to your sides?

There has been a huge amount of ink spilled over the years on the handshake, so I won’t belabor that, but suffice it to say that it should be somewhere between limp and vice-like, and that it should match your eye contact in duration and intensity. You don’t want a weird mismatch between the two – your eyes saying hi and your hand saying no – or vice-versa.

On the whole I don’t recommend the double handshake, because politicians use that to control people and move them along, so it can feel patronizing and dominating. But some people can manage it so that it feels intimate and connecting. Your call.

Then, move down to the feet – they should be pointed toward your new friend, not out the door or toward the next person.

Openness, scientifically speaking, is about sending welcoming signals with your face, torso, hands, and body, without overdoing it or crowding the personal space of the other person too much.

I’ll talk about the other two phases and their body language correlates in the next blog post.

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