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Are you up for something different – an experimental challenge?

Ottawa-based consultant Shaun Belding suggests not talking the next time you are out with a group of people, having lunch or at some other event. “Unless you are asked a direct question, stay silent. Look interested and remain entirely focused on whoever is talking. Nod and smile when it’s appropriate and, unless you’re expecting notification of an imminent zombie apocalypse, do not look at your cellphone – not even once,” he writes on his blog.

You’ll be surprised by the reaction of others. He says people will look more frequently at you, since they like to talk to individuals who listen. The more you nod and quietly affirm what the talkers are saying, the frequency increases as they begin looking at you for confirmation and support. And as a bonus, when other people jump in with comments and questions, they will subconsciously start glancing at you to gauge your reactions.

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You can continue the experiment by then asking each person who speaks a question or two – not a comment, a question. “Make the questions simple, positive, and ones that give talkers the opportunity to look good. For example, if the talker is going on about how they won over a difficult customer, you might ask, ‘Wow, how did you keep your composure when the customer got so angry?’” they say.

He says that will magnify the behaviour you saw in the first part of the experiment and draw them to direct questions at you or to ask your opinion. So by focusing on listening or asking supportive questions rather than giving your own opinions you will be making yourself a more attractive person in the group, increasing your stature. “One of the reasons that this experiment works so quickly and the results are so dramatic is that good listeners are in incredibly short supply. The reality is that most people prefer talking – and most of us aren’t nearly as good at listening as we think we are,” he says. And you can take the experimental insights into your interactions at work.

Here’s another experimental challenge that Inc. columnist Jeff Haden set for himself that you may want to echo. He decided he would compliment everyone he ran into for an entire day. That’s everyone he made eye contact with, whether he knew them or not, and whether it seemed socially appropriate or not. To make sure he didn’t chicken out, he also challenged himself to make eye contact with as many people as possible.

It was difficult at first – not just daring to utter a compliment but finding the right one – and although it became more comfortable it never got easy. But it was surprisingly rewarding as people’s faces lit up. He learned that asking for help from others is a compliment.

He notes that every day around you people do good things. He was complimenting people who are often strangers but the notion certainly applies to colleagues at work. Unexpected compliments, he found, are even better than expected ones.

Colleagues can be insecure about their actions, particularly ones that for them were risky. Notice when they do this – try something different. “Compliment the effort. Praise the risk. Even if what they try doesn’t work, they will know you noticed, and everyone likes to be noticed. And they’ll know, regardless of how it turns out, that you respect them for trying,” he says.

We know we’re supposed to listen and be supportive. But that’s easier said than done. Try these experimental challenges and see if it makes a difference.

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Quick hits

  • Consultant Alan Weiss says a customer should never encounter a web page that announces “site under construction” or a voice mailbox indicating the mailbox is full so they can’t leave a message.
  • The No. 1 rule about receiving feedback says business coach Bern Geropp is that it’s a gift.
  • In brainstorming, try to pair people open to new experiences with extroverts. Research by two academics found that such pairs not only generated more ideas than other collaborations but the ideas scored roughly 15 per cent to 20 per cent higher. Pairing open people with introverts proved the worst possibility, with ideas rated poorly. People who were closed to new ideas didn’t benefit from talking with extroverted or introverted partners.
  • A survey by presentations expert Dave Paradi found 78 per cent of respondents see two or more PowerPoint presentations a week and information overload in them – too many full sentences with tiny text – is a big concern.
  • The best answer Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry received when he asked a job candidate to tell him about themself was “I’ve climbed the highest mountains on every continent, including Everest.” Even if you haven’t done that, you can learn from the answer – he says you should be memorable, taking a risk to be personal beyond the work you have done, demonstrating passion, purpose and authenticity.

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