In the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus Library’s first Ask UAS talk of the school year this past week, Assistant Professor of Writing and Composition Steve Florian presented “Practicing the Art of Interpersonal Communication: Think Positive, Act Positive.”
“We’re going to practice a little bit of interpersonal communication tonight,” Florian announced in his introduction.
He also distributed a printed information packet with articles titled, “The Top 10 Handshakes,” and “To Negotiate Effectively, First Shake Hands.” There also was a list of “Type Me” questions, which outlined the types of information people infer about each other in their first minutes of meeting.
The “Top 10” handshakes included such handshake styles as “sweaty palms,” “dead fish,” and “politician,” and information about how each affects people as they meet.
Florian then asked for two volunteers to demonstrate a mock networking event meeting between strangers. Attendees Judith Green and David Mitchel stepped up.
Following Florian’s instructions, they shook hands, asked a few questions about each other, then exchanged business cards supplied by Florian.
Florian asked Green and Mitchel how they felt about each others’ handshakes and introductions and they confirmed the interaction was all positive.
“Based on this interaction, do you think that you would continue to pursue a professional relationship?” Florian asked the pair.
They both agreed that they would.
Audience member Marzette Ellis commented, “It was just very earnest, direct, personal and the whole body language eye connection” as well.
Florian asked Ellis what she thought of the pair’s body language, and Ellis answered, “It seems like a little too much space, like it was a reach, almost, to shake.”
Attendee Judith McQuerry commented, “On the other hand, the scenario that they’re playing out is that they’re strangers, and I would be leery of a stranger who stood close to me right off the bat, when I hadn’t even shaken their hand — even if it was a business thing. So, I thought that space between them was probably pretty appropriate.”
Myrna Loquadro, also from the audience, said, “I would have been interested in seeing how they would have been if there had been a bunch of other people — like, they would be in a business networking situation, if they would have been closer, because you can’t hear people.”
Florian agreed, and said, “Environmental factors play a huge role in terms of how we conduct our interpersonal communication events.”
He released Green and Mitchel back to the audience and further described the challenges that could make their demonstration go differently, listing factors such as noise levels, the number of people, or the presence of food, alcohol or music.
Florian explained that he uses a handshake test in his communications classes right from the start, then, over time the students move from discomfort to beginning to build a sense of community.
He described one student who, when the handshake tests were first started, backed up so far at each handshake that she ended up pressed into a corner. She hadn’t even been aware she was backing up, Florian said.
“Sometimes, nerves take over and this also can inform how we are going to participate in these types of community events,” Florian said. “There’s a lot happening, and a lot of what happens is response to stimuli too. We have our task, we know what we want to say and do, but there’s lots of things we don’t necessarily account for.”
Florian said an important aspect of first meetings is for people to realize that we start to form judgments of people very quickly.
“These judgments may or may not be true, but what is true is that we all do it. And when we start to form opinions about these people — there’s a saying that you only get one chance to make a good first impression, right?” Florian said. “Well, unfortunately, in a lot of ways, this is true.”
Florian talked about one of the more unpleasant handshakes, the “sweaty palm,” as an example of how introductions can be tricky to navigate.
“If you’re trying to build relationships and you want to do business with this person, even though they have the sweatiest, oiliest palm in North America,” he said, “If you want to do the deal, you can’t pull back. You can’t flinch.”
That person knows they have a sweaty palm, he explained, and will greatly value a person’s ability to control their urge to wipe their hand off or pull away.
“If you start to talk about it, if you start to break these things down, and talk about what’s happening in these communication events, start to be able to read what’s happening, whether it’s verbal, non-verbal, your power and your sense of control in these situations climbs rapidly,” Florian added. “You become a much more effective communicator. Then, you get to attend to the list of things that you wanted to accomplish in these events.”
Florian then asked for two more volunteers, inspiring McQuerry and Brett Serlin to come forward to face the audience.
“We’re going to make some guesses about these two people right here,” Florian explained, gesturing to his volunteers.
He turned to the last page of his handout, listing the “Type Me” questions.
The first question was, “Where does this person work?”
Audience members were encouraged to call out guesses, simply based on the pair’s appearance and demeanor.
Guesses for Serlin included dock worker and professional. Guesses for McQuerry included a university administrator.
Next questions included, “Where does this person shop,” “Is this person single or married,” “What type of vehicle does this person drive,” and “Are they a dog or a cat person.”
When the exercise was done, Florian asked McQuerry and Serlin how many of the guesses were accurate. McQuerry said guess for her were nearly 100 percent accurate, and Serlin said guesses about him were less so.
“What did we learn in this little event?” Florian asked the group.
Answers included that we project a lot about ourselves without realizing it, and Florian explained that we do purposefully construct our identities.
To do that, we choose certain clothes, hairstyles, colors and accessories, he said.
“So when you go out into the world, people read you as a text, really,” Florian said, and asserted that the demonstration showed how fast and accurately people can decode those clues.
“In these interpersonal communication events, there’s a lot of stimulus that’s there at work at all times,” he said. “So if we know that, we can make some more important choices about how we’re going respond or interact with other people”
Florian explained, “Really what we’re doing, in these situations, is inductive reasoning. So, deductive reasoning means you’re trying to get at what is actually true, that real thing, right? The nice thing about inductive reasoning is, that it only has to be probably true. It’s the way to build arguments. You start to try and get at what’s happening in the world through inductive reasoning, you do it all day long, in terms of how you get through the world everyday.”
He added that inductive reasoning can become a problem when people accept it as concrete thinking.
Florian then told the audience that a productive way to think of interpersonal communications is as a bridge that connects people.
“The better we are at communicating, the better our relationships are going to be,” Florian said.
“You always have choices, in terms of how you communicate,” he said. “So, if we want to be good communicators, we’ve got to work at it. Interpersonal communication — it’s always dynamic.”
He emphasized the importance of recognizing the context in which the communication is taking place, and added that how a person communicates is informed by culture, and a good communicator will be aware of how that informs his or her biases.
Florian posted, in one of several slides he displayed, the “Interactive Communication Model.”
Information in the slide described the model as a process involving senders and receivers that is influenced by feedback and fields of experience. Feedback was defined as verbal and non-verbal messages that indicate reaction to the message, and fields of experience were defined as the history and experience that people bring to communication events.
Knowing one’s own communication challenges, for instance, having a tendency to get distracted by the environment, can help a person make choices that will improve their communication strategies, Florian explained.
Being aware that other people also have challenges in communication can help a person to adapt and support the person with whom they’re communicating.
“Another thing to think about in terms of these interpersonal communications, too,” Florian said, “is this ‘I-thou’ concept. If you can keep your communication event in an I-thou realm, it means that at all times, you’re considering the humanity of that other person. You consider them a human being in equal status to yourself, and if this is true, you’re going to hang in there, you’re going to attend to that person in ways that you wouldn’t if you weren’t functioning that way. It’s incredibly empowering.”
He further defined the concept by describing a person in an “I-It” frame of mind as someone who has to be in power at all times, who dehumanizes others in his or her mind and possibly uses micro-aggressions to keep the other person in place.
He also discussed the damaging communication method used by a “truth-teller” person, who announces that they can only tell the “truth.”
“What they don’t care about is what the other person thinks or feels,” Florian said. “They’re not considering their audience or their partner in this communication event, they’re only concerned with themselves, how they’re viewing the world in this instance.”
That approach immediately places the truth-teller in the “I-It” realm.
Florian offered the idea that when people’s relationships begin to improve, it’s likely because they increased their knowledge and awareness.
“It’s probably because you’ve sort of moved into this mindful state about how you choose to communicate with the people in your life, whether it’s personal, whether it’s work,” he said.
“There’s a lot at stake, every single day. You have to stay in the ring and sort it out,” Florian said.