Captivate With this Simple Gesture

Since the first day I stumbled on a talk by Vanessa Van Edwards, I was drawn not only by her elegance, but more by her ability to captivate. When it comes to being captivating, she is the subject expert.

She has authored the most read book on the subject titled “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People” While I haven’t read the book yet, I have learned so much from Vanessa through her many talks. But I will like to talk only about one thing that has been resonant in the results it produces.

It concerns a rather primitive inclination we all have, the evolutionary fear of strangers and the unknown. We evolved to fear the unknown. Almost none of us is excited about being plunged in the midst of total strangers. It is uncomfortable and generally invokes one of three responses: fight (internal resistance/shutting out), flight (quickly leave) or try to be friendly. All these reactions are driven by anxiety. Many people become reserved and disengaged. Some make themselves smaller, fold their arms to self soothe and/or protect themselves emotionally. Most will go for the ever-present help when faced with social stress/anxiety, their phones, and bury their attention in them. Some choose flight and simply find a way to escape the encounter. A phone call, fake or real, is always a good escape route. For ladies, they opt to “use” the rest room. In a party, many people will go to get a drink. There are many flight mechanisms.

Anthropologist describe this behavior as thinking like a cave man.

Photo by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash

Our cave ancestors had a very simple question to answer very quickly when they encountered a stranger. Am I safe? Is this a friend or foe? This had to be made so quickly that we evolved the ability to do it subconsciously.

That’s why even today, we still subconsciously form first impressions very quickly. The science says that it takes about ten seconds before we decide whether we like a stranger or not. Even though we are determining if we like this person or not, underneath the hood, we are using exactly the same mechanism as our cave ancestors used to determine whether a stranger was a friend or foe.

What we use to make that decision is neither knowledge, facts, nor information. We use the same primitive nonverbal cues that cave man employed.

What does this mean as we go about meeting new people who we might like to connect with in our daily lives?

We have to master the art of quickly showing that we are a friend without saying a word. And we have to learn to do that in just about 10 seconds? Tik tok…

That’s the powerful tip I’ll be sharing with you which has been a game changer for me. The simple answer is: “Show them your hands.” Yes, hands. You thought smile? Well, that helps significantly. But it’s not the primary thing. If someone’s hands are not visible but they are broadly smiling, your cave man instincts will invoke discomfort because your brain goes, “what are they hiding?” So, show your hands and smile. A wave or outstretched handshake gesture is great. Folded arms when we meet people especially for the first time is typically perceived as a stay away signal (don’t even come close).

You can understand why this was very important to our cave ancestors. If they saw the hands, they were assured the other person was not carrying any weapons. They felt a little safe, relaxed and curious to know the stranger.

In our social settings today, our primary concern is not safety. But when we see hands, the brain relaxes and assumes the person friendly subconsciously and we become more likely to engage in a friendly way in response. Principle of reciprocity.

Think about this a bit. If a stranger had ever waved to you from a distance, before you got close to them, you already felt like “I like this person” or “She/He is friendly”.

In contrast if someone you know very well approaches you with their hands behind their back and keeps them there while talking to you, your brain starts going crazy with assumptions and uncomfortable curiosity. What are they hiding?

Start Polishing Your First Impression

Here is how I have used this powerful tip so far. In 2020, in the peak of the Covid lock down when I was applying for jobs, the first thing I did when I had a video interview was wave in the camera with both hands. This quickly shifted the interviews I had to friendly discussions compared to the previous ones in which I wasn’t doing this.

When I speak in front of an audience, the first thing I do is to cave man indicate that I am a friend. That means I start with both hands out and forward almost as if I am reaching out to embrace the audience. The results need not be told, it’s an experience and I want to you to have it.

Finally even for people you already know, try stretching forward your hands towards them when you are still like a meter or two away and see how it changes the whole dynamic of the interaction. You’ll get warmer handshakes, warmer hugs, bigger smiles.

Open body language really starts with showing your hands and expanding your body. Arms stretched wide and/or forward is a superpower in bonding and connecting with people. Say goodbye to awkward and cold interactions with this magical tip. Do not fold arms and close in, expand, spread out and open yourself to the world you want to be part of.

This opens people up to warm interactions and paves the way to creating a real bonds and connections. But it is just a door opened. Now you have to know how to engage when you enter and how to keep an engaging interaction going. That’s where conversational intelligence comes in.

Do you know your small talk? Can you start and keep an interesting conversation going with others? Let me know in the comments.