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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back Off So We Don’t Communicate

You step into an empty elevator in a public building with two of your friends as you continue talking and laughing. The doors close … almost.

Someone jabs in a hand, the doors retract, and the obese guy steps in. You’re feeling a bit crowded. The joking stops. Right behind him comes an exceptionally attractive young woman. Keeping your eyes off her is difficult. Then enters two foreigners speaking their language, followed by a homeless person, and finally an elderly woman with a walker.

Can you feel your anxiety rising, your emotions bouncing? What’s happening? In brief, physical proximity to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unwashed creates contradicting cues. You want to be gracious and open-minded but at a distance. You have no distance in the elevator.

3 observations on distance and communication

1 Getting close to someone close
The better we know an individual, the more relaxed we are when close to him or her. Makes sense. But let me restate that: the more positive we feel toward an individual at any given time, the more relaxed and uninhibited we are when close. Talking encourages good feelings, which leads to laughing, which encourages affection, which can lead to hugging, which can lead to … well, you know.

Tension between two people reverses that process. After an argument with our spouse or best friend, we’re not much in the mood for hugging. That’s obvious. But is the reason so obvious? It’s because such an upheaval confuses us and makes us uncertain about how to respond. We can’t be physically close to the person we are normally closest with because our anger won’t let us.

Consequently, we tighten our muscles, climb into our mind to draw up a battle plan, and move our bodies away from the perceived source of our discomfort. Even shaking hands with a colleague we’re angry with would confuse us. How could we not like this person right now and yet the physical contact of a handshake would say we do?

The irony of these situations, of course, is that understanding and resolution will come not from our mouths or our heads at a distance but from simply being close to the “enemy” and feeling disarmed. Closeness causes communication.

2 Getting close to colleagues
Desks and conference tables are more than flat writing surfaces. They set the comfortable distance between participants for intellectual, structured exchanges of acceptable information at a certain volume – in other words, business talk.

By contrast, confidential or personal information generally is shared informally while standing close to each other using hushed voices. Distance defines the type of communication; the type of communication defines the distance.

Even the way we position ourselves around a desk or table is revealing. If someone stays behind his desk (his territory) when meeting with you in his office -- close to his computer, papers, telephone, and other information sources -- he is in control while you, on the opposite side without such tools, are the supplicant. He reflects a certain comfort and power that you likely don’t. In this situation, communication usually is rigid.

Likewise, in a group meeting in a conference room, we rarely sit beside someone with whom we routinely disagree. The physical proximity would unnerve each individual and likely make both hesitant to comment because it is awkward to disagree with a person so close. Additionally, sitting across from someone with opposing views typically results in one person contributing ideas and the other dismissing ideas. Communication goes haywire.

One more example of distance. I deciphered a pattern when I worked for a major public relations firm years back. On accounts that involved multiple agency offices, the further geographically a group billing on that account was from having to explain an invoice to the client face-to-face, the more money they billed.

3 Getting close to yourself
About to join the health club or about to lose 10 pounds sometimes seems as real as actually exercising and dieting. If we can convince ourselves that something will happen – actually might, could, should happen – then our minds seem satisfied while our bodies still suffer.

Now, think of the times you stayed on an exercise routine and dropped a few pounds. What did you tell friends? Probably, “I have never felt so much energy and focus.” Why is that? Simple.

When we’re out of shape, overeat, over-caffeine, under-sleep, and over-work, our minds separate from – rather discard – our bodies. Living in our minds requires less maintenance than taking care of our deteriorating shells. Yet, a physically sound body, connected to an alert mind, and all on a sensible schedule opens up new possibilities for productivity, learning, and achievement.

5 Close-up Tips
  1. Agree with your loved one that someone will initiate a hug within 5 minutes following an argument. Even asking, “whose turn is it to initiate?” will lead to chuckles and snuggles. As my blogger friend Seth Simonds says, "We fight for the win when a win on either side means a loss for the whole"

  2. Approach someone you have wronged and, without even thinking, tell him you’re sorry and extend your hand. If he refuses, put your hand calmly in your pocket; don’t clench it. You might have another chance later.

  3. Deliberately sit in a meeting beside someone with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye. Create small talk before the session starts. Do this exercise at three meetings and you are likely to discover some common ground.

  4. Have coffee with someone associated with a group you disagree with and have strong feelings about. Sitting near each other and talking may not change your mind, but it could affect your heart.

  5. Exercise your body and mind by walking for 30 minutes three times a week while listening to a novel on your iPod. Congratulate yourself each time. Give yourself a hug. Then take a shower.
Richard Skaare 01.13.09

  • One of the seminal works on space and communication is Robert Bales’ “Interactive Process Analysis.”
  • Seth Simonds’ blog offers some wise and practical advice on “getting close to someone close.”

Credit: Graphic by The Gold Guys


Anonymous said...
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Dave Freedman said...

Richard, in your elevator scenario you are assuming that I am a male (easily distracted by attractive young women), I am not obese and/or feel anxious around obese guys, my native language is English and I'm anxious around people who speak a foreign language, I find homeless people unwashed and distasteful, and for some reason I'm anxious around elderly women with walkers. I think you are describing yourself, not me.

Chelsea Mitchell said...

All day today I was having mixed feelings concerning my proximity to different people I encountered. I went to the gym in the morning and had to pick which treadmill to get on. They were all free except for one person. I wanted to get on the machine next to her so I would have the best position to the TV. But something stopped me, instinct perhaps, and told me not to do that. So I choose the tread mill a couple over from her. My butterflies disappeared and I knew I made the right choice.
Another encounter today was with a girl who sat right next to me. I don’t know if she knew, but I was ticked off at her. We usually help each other out, so when she told me I couldn’t borrow her text book, that it wouldn’t be available the rest of the day, well I was definitely rubbed the wrong way. I mean she lives three floors down and it was only two in the afternoon. I know she wouldn’t need the book all day, so what was the deal. So when she sat next to me the next day, which was today, I wasn’t very happy. I gave her the cold shoulder, I was tense, and I was rude. She was to close to me. So needless to say, I communicated my feelings with her even though I hadn’t planned on it. Maybe if we were further way it never would have been known that I was …upset.
It really would have been nice to have been able to say “back off so we don’t communicate.” (Skaare) Thank you Mr. Skaare, I really enjoyed what you wrote.