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The impact of touch in business

Touch is one of the most effective tools a leader has at her disposal to build the trust that develops and deepens the relationships with the people they wish to engage.

In this first part of a two-post series we look at why touch is so effective, and at how to use it appropriately to enhance your business relationships.

The Power of Touch

As the largest organ in your body, representing about one fifth of your total body weight, and one absolutely covered with nerve endings, your skin is one of the most important interfaces you have with the world around you and those in it.

Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana found that blindfolded candidates touched by complete strangers could distinguish eight distinct emotions ranging from love to gratitude or disgust.  “We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions” he said, but his research shows that touch is a “much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined”.

You can reassure, support, praise, console or even correct using the swiftest of touches.  Touching can calm the angry or anxious, raise the spirits of the depressed, reassure and comfort the grieving.  Consider comforting someone in grief – which is more effective: some comforting words or putting an arm around a shoulder / taking their hands?

But good touching is also beneficial to those doing the touching. Just like smiling, touching or hugging triggers the release of Dopamine and Serotonin, the two ‘feel good’ hormones mentioned in an earlier post on smiling.  It also triggers a reduction in Cortisol, the hormone that promotes the feeling of stress. For both the toucher and touched touching reduces stress, raises immunity, lowers blood pressure, and raises self-confidence.

Touch and Bonding

The first time your mother touched you your baby’s brain triggered the release of Oxytocin – the hormone that promotes trust and accelerates bonding.  This is what intensifies the bond between baby and child.  Even now someone touching you triggers the release of this hormone and promotes a greater feeling of trust for the person initiating the touch.

Where and When to Touch?

Where you can touch another person varies greatly from culture to culture and you’d be well advised to acquaint yourself with local culture and traditions should you find yourself away from home.

For example in Latin America the abrazo, or full body hug, is commonplace.  This is so normal in that culture that you’ll appear very standoffish and cold if you don’t give and take hugs freely.  For some people in North America and UK this is just a little ‘full on’ to be acceptable – for others it’s a way of life.  Across Europe the level of touching that is acceptable varies widely – with countries like France, Spain, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean countries having a much more touch-oriented culture than countries like UK and Netherlands.  The Arab world also tends to have appropriate gender-to-gender touch integrated into its culture.

Universally Acceptable Touching

Focus on perfecting your touch of others using that which is going to be maximally acceptable across the majority of cultures you’ll encounter. Here are some largely universally acceptable touches:

  • Shoulder, elbow, arm or hand. Pretty much everywhere in North America and Europe it is generally acceptable to touch someone on the shoulder, elbow, arm or back of the hand – as long as the touch is not too long. 2-3 seconds is more than long enough to have the desired effect without having any unwanted impacts.
  • Forearm. Even a brief tap on the forearm as a sign of reassurance or agreement can be extremely powerful and reassuring.
  • Pat on back. The traditional brief pat on the back can also be very encouraging as long as the accompanying language ensures that it does not seem in any way patronizing.
  • Hand / lower arm taps. A tap on the hand or lower arm whist making a positive point can cement that point.

These brief and non-threatening gestures are a very frequently a standard part of the communication of those leaders perceived as charismatic.  Touching someone can very often communicate in situations where words simply will not do the job.

Don’t rush in!

If touching others is not a normal and natural part of the way you interact with people then watch those around you who use it routinely – and learn how to build in an appropriate amount of relationship-enhancing touch into your everyday interactions: and watch your relationships with those around you warm up dramatically.

The most common touch of all

Finally, we haven’t touched on the single most common and universally acceptable form of touching in our world – the handshake. The handshake is so important that I’ve devoted the entire second part of this two-part series to understanding how to make this critical relationship work for you.

What’s your take on the use of touch in business?

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