LinkedIn Body Language: How Touch Creates Stronger Connections

LinkedIn Body Language How Touch Creates Stronger Connections explains how touch helps you create a stronger LinkedIn network–literally and figuratively

LinkedIn Body Language How Touch Creates Stronger Connections: reflectionOne of my Twitter friends recently sent me an article on touch and its powerful role in creating trust and relationship. I think about this frequently, but in the context of “touch” while interacting in social networks. In fact, during client work, I explicitly address “LinkedIn body language,” which raises awareness of online “gestures” and how they reinforce–or detract from–what someone is trying to say, so this presents an opportunity to delve into literal and figurative touch and its role in strengthening relationship and LinkedIn interactions.

The New York Times’ “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much” briefly reviews recent research on touch, and I’ll comment on its relevance to physical relationships and how you can use the concepts to take your touches in your LinkedIn interactions up a level.

Touch and Its Role in Relationship

Although I have written repeatedly that the transition from the Industrial Economy to the Knowledge Economy will rehumanize organization, I am still amazed at how profound and powerful this transition is. This means that we need to think of the person much more directly, and we will all be better off for it. For example, most people like to think that business relationships are based on terms and numbers first, and the emotional part of the relationship is secondary. Although that can be true in some business situations, the reverse is also true, especially in B2B or professional services situations in which relationship is paramount.

What does touch have to do with this? Before turning to LinkedIn body language, let’s examine how this works viscerally. The “Evidence” article comments:

Momentary touches, they say–whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm–can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

In other words, if you know how to touch someone appropriately, you can communicate more powerfully, which can increase trust. Obviously this works both ways because the touch could repel the person as well: and what is appropriate for one person or situation will not be appropriate elsewhere. Touch is inherently primal, and it can convey your emotion or attitude quickly, and it is more difficult to fake. To be successful, you need to be aware of your feeling for the person and situation, and be willing to be authentic about your feelings and intentions. This will give you confidence and will increase your ability to touch people appropriately. Some examples of business touches, from least to more intimate:

  • Eye contact is a visual touch. There are many “techniques” you can follow to know how much and what kind of eye contact to have, but I have found two things that will lead you mostly right: 1) have a sincere interest in the other person, which can mean changing the subject by asking a question if s/he is talking about something in which you have no interest. You are looking for a connection, so strive for it; don’t just avoid the person. 2) mirror the other person, be aware of his/her comfort level. I am often in cross-cultural situations, so I also pay close attention to how people are with each other.
  • The handshake. So much has been said and written about this, but it’s the most prevalent touch in business. Be aware that your handshake represents you, so pay attention to which handshakes you enjoy most. It may sound silly, but you can enjoy shaking hands. I realized this for the first time last year, when I spoke at PanIIT. Most of the people I met had a different attitude, often the handshake was prolonged during the initial conversation.
  • Getting someone’s attention in a loud room. Touch the person softly on the shoulder or the arm. Here again, be aware of yourself. In business situations, I never tap someone like knocking on a door ,^). Most people are not aware of how they touch, so it is a more unadulterated gauge of their feelings.
  • Making introductions. Depending on the situation, you can add importance and intimacy by touching one or both of the people as you introduce them to each other. Just lightly on the arm.
  • Grooming. If someone’s dress is out of place and s/he is not aware of it, you can discretely mention it. Men have jacket lapels turned up, perhaps a spill at a cocktail party, etc. A particularly memorable instance for me: during Web 1.0 (circa 2000), I was attending one of the first “speed networking” sessions in which each person had two minutes to introduce himself to the other, and everyone met everyone in the room within 90 minutes. Much to my chagrin, I noticed a woman across the room with a “toilet paper tail” following her everywhere. Here she was, meeting all these people, making an indelible impression. No one told her, and I had to wait for a couple of rounds before I passed closely enough to point it out to her. A few minutes later, we actually met for our brief session! Spinach in the teeth also comes under this category.
  • Of course, all these things vary considerably with culture. If you are observant and considerate, you will get it right most of the time. With touch, the most important thing is to be considerate, comfortable and confident. People literally feel your attitude, and if it is forthcoming and authentic, you can increase your presence by touching more.
  • I encourage you to check out my review of Robin Dunbar’s masterpiece, “Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language,” which provides much more fascinating insight that underlies touch.

Another thought from the New York Times article:

“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

LinkedIn Body Language

To fully appreciate how “touch” applies to LinkedIn interaction, imagine yourself as a human brain. Through the centuries, you have evolved, and one of your key survival mechanisms is discerning how much of the truth someone is sharing with you. Hence, you rely on nonverbal communication, which is much more difficult to fake because people are less aware of it than they are of their words.

Now imagine a brain on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Here, you don’t have the nonverbals on which you’ve relied for centuries. Yet you still have the need to understand people. So what do you do? You hack “social network nonverbal communication.” By default, you overlay what has worked in the past onto the immediate situation. Our brains create LinkedIn body language by assigning meaning to very small things that most people don’t think about.

What does this look like? The answer lies in thinking figuratively. How do you touch people?

  • Do you send personal invitations? How personal are your “personalized” invitiations? Still, after all these years, most of the LinkedIn invitations I receive are the default. I almost categorically reject them. These invitations don’t have to be long, but they should be specific. Most important, when possible, explicitly tie an emotion to the invitation. “I really enjoyed our conversation about Argentina’s economy, I felt that it was a frightening thing to live through.” To work, this has to be genuine.
  • Making or responding to introductions. Make this as personal as possible, but appropriate. “I’d trust Steve with my job anytime; I saw him describe a client’s logistics and supply chain issues after visiting two warehouses, he’s amazing.” Don’t feel that you have to get really emotional all the time; chances are, you know one person better than the other, so act as appropriate.
  • Recommendations enable you to apply touch very powerfully. If you think about it, and if you know the person fairly well (i.e. don’t write canned two-sentence Recommendations), you can almost always include emotional content. “Barbara’s determination during a risky part of the project anchored the team and gave us the confidence to turn it around.”
  • Answers and Groups Discussions are relatively impersonal environments, but where appropriate, you can incorporate touch into your responses to Answers and discussions in Groups by sharing personal aspects of what the topic means to you and people who are important to you. Remember, everyone is looking for meaning in life. Why is this important to you? Giving an emotional channel to what you are discussing will make you more memorable. It is a kind of touch.
  • Take risks. Although I am committed to responding to LinkedIn requests from my network within a day or so, sometimes I slip up, and I apologize to both parties. Acknowledging my slip-ups in a heartfelt way (without being overly dramatic) is a kind of touch.

Parting Shots

  • I hope this gives you some ideas for amping up your LinkedIn interactions. Touch is a more intimate interaction than words, so it’s higher risk and reward. Therefore, it gives you the opportunity to break through. It’s really another way you can show people that you care about them. This only works if it’s true. If you have a loose tie network in which you don’t know many of the people, practice touch with people you know the best.
  • We’ve all experienced “creepy” touches. Most of them come from people who are insincere or who have some kind of hidden agenda. Don’t force it; don’t be personal when you can’t do it authentically.
  • I’ll hazard that you will realize that “touching” someone doesn’t take longer, but it does take a moment or two of consideration and perhaps reflection. In most cases, this amounts to a minute or so.
  • Remember, many interactions on LinkedIn are seen by other people in your network, or by the LinkedIn community. This can give you leverage. When people see you “touching” someone appropriately, they will usually admire you more. Because you are taking a higher risk in your communications. If you make a mistake, apologize in public, which will increase your stature even more.
  • Don’t worry about impressing all the people; you know how achievable that is. Conduct yourself appropriately, and the right people will admire you more, which will strengthen the community you are building around you.
  • Keep in mind that most of touch communication is unconscious. People are not aware of its impact on their willingness to trust someone else.

Your Turn

What LinkedIn body language have you noticed? What’s the most positive/negative reaction you’ve had to someone’s “touch” on LinkedIn?

2 comments to LinkedIn Body Language How Touch Creates Stronger Connections

  • Connie Sexton

    I totally agree about personalized invitations to connect. However, LinkedIn has made this more difficult. I download my address book from time to time to see who is in there I haven’t yet connected to. I identified 3 or 4 people who were to receive the same invitation since my relationship with them was the same. You can no longer click on the 3 or 4 names and do a custom invitation. You can put them in individually and do a custom invitation but you have to look up their addresses first. I thought I must be missing something but wwhen I sent a question to the LinkedIn help desk the response was that they changed the format to avoid mass invitations. And sending the standard one line invitation isn’t mass?

    • Hi Connie, thanks for sharing your frustration. The trust factor is so hard to deal with.. most of us are honest and trying to automate, be as efficient as possible, but a few people try to abuse the system and impose that on the rest of us. I know LI receives a ton of complaints from execs that they get “spammed” so LI errs on the side of being conservative and making it more work to contact a lot of people at once. They know that if too many people get spammed, their company is in serious trouble. Their approach is the opposite of Facebook’s, which might be characterized as “shoot first, aim later.” LI is all about privacy, discretion and trust, even though that makes it harder for us sometimes! All the best-

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