I couldn’t possibly write this any better than the inimitable Jerry Panas (as told to his partner of many years, Jerry Linzy), so I’m not even going to try. Please read the entire, brief and to-the-point article: listening with your whole body.
It covers five important ‘rules’ to guide you in all human interactions. Don’t forget them when it comes to meetings with major donor prospects:
- Face people directly.
- Maintain positive eye contact.
- Use open gestures.
- Use your head.
- Activate your smile power.
Now, let me add a few things from my experience, plus some actionable tips.
1. Be with the other person, in the moment.
Anything you do that draws one iota of your attention away from your donor prospect is one thing you shouldn’t be doing. Not in this moment. A donor meeting is the donor’s moment, not yours. Not someone who knocks on your door. Not someone who calls you on the phone. Not someone who emails you on your laptop. Not someone who texts you.
TIP: When you’re in a donor meeting, put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on anything else you’re doing, or thinking. Put it on your office door. Put your cell phone away, and turn off notifications. Take anything off your desk that obstructs your view of your donor. If you meet outside your office, do the same (e.g., remove the centerpiece from the restaurant table; ask for permission to move a pile of magazines from the donor’s kitchen table if it’s in your way). And if you’re seated too far away from the other person to look them in the eye, ask to sit closer so you can face them directly.
2. Look your donor in the eye at all times.
This is easier said than done. For some folks it comes naturally. If you’re not one of those, you need to practice. Here’s a “wikiHow” to help you out: How to Look People in the Eye. It’s not a staring contest, by the way. You’ll need to look away; then look back. Probably a duration of up to five seconds at a pop is good.
The reason it’s so important is that when you don’t maintain eye contact, folks will tend to think you’re not interested in them. Or that you don’t like them. Or that you can’t stand to look at them. Sometimes maintaining eye contact can be really difficult. You can practice on your family. Or even on yourself while looking in the mirror. Or try some FaceTime or Skype calls so you can practice on your friends. Afterwards, let them know what you were practicing and ask them how you did.
TIP: Dale Carnegie’s trick is to look at your prospect’s eyes long enough to register what color they are before looking away. This seems to be a comfortable amount of time for an eyeball to eyeball connection. I’ve also experienced donors with food stuck between their teeth, which made looking directly at them a bit gross. So I tried to focus on one eye, or on the bridge of their nose, or somewhere just above their mouth. I don’t think they could tell, as long as I was in the vicinity and not averting my gaze.
3. Maintain open body language.
You’ve no doubt heard it’s off putting if you cross your arms or legs while talking with someone face to face. It makes you looked closed off. Like you’re not interested in what they’re saying. The same holds true if you clench your fists, or sit on your hands (this is something I learned I did inadvertently, and I had to unlearn it).
Whenever you’re in a meeting, check yourself every now and then to take stock of your body language. If your arms are crossed, make a conscious effort to uncross them. If you sense your body is tensed up, take a breath and make a conscious effort to relax your posture. When we look uptight, we’re perceived that way. It’s just not inviting.
TIP: Learn your own bad habits that need to be addressed. Full Confession: I cross my arms way too often because I get cold (you know, that “brrr…” gesture we make). It’s just a habit. One I keep trying to break. Try to notice your own habits. It’s the first step to being able to break them.
4. Match your body language to your donor’s.
This is called mirroring. When we imitate others (subtly) they instinctively feel more comfortable. It’s a way of saying “look, we’re the same.” Or “the vibe between us feels right.” For instance, if your donor tilts their head one way, you might do the same. If they sit on the edge of their chair, you might do the same. If they put their palms up on the table, you might do the same. This takes a lot of practice, so it doesn’t look like you’re simply copying them. Practice on your family or a close friend.
This is a way we tell another person we’re in agreement with them. It’s a version of one of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence and persuasion, often referred to as “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” Or think of it simply as “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Don’t think of this as manipulation. Rather, think of it as a way of putting your donor at ease and making them feel more comfortable.
TIP: Practice mirroring. I once took a day-long workshop on mirroring and used what I learned to practice on my husband. At first he’d get really angry because I did it so inelegantly. You have to adapt your movements slowly. Persevere. After a while, I improved.
5. Nod your approval.
Nodding is universally seen as an invitation to continue with what you’re saying/doing. It’s an indication of both interest and receptivity. And it shows you’re listening and paying attention! Panas suggests using a cluster of three nods at intervals, noting that research shows people will talk three to four times more when you do this.
TIP: Practice nodding until it becomes second nature. When my son was younger, I often used nodding as a way to encourage him to continue. It’s the equivalent of a therapist saying “tell me more,” but perhaps a bit less obvious. And since my husband was a psychologist, my son was on to the “tell me more” ploy! They’re both good strategies, of course. You should use all the tools at your disposal, both verbal and physical.
6. Smile and the world smiles with you.
The human brain naturally prefers a happy face. When you smile, it positively impacts how people respond to you. You’ve heard how yawning is contagious and makes others yawn? The same is true with smiling. And if you can get your donor prospect to smile, you’ll get them to feel better about your visit. As human beings we’re just wired this way, which is why you see a lot of smiling faces in ads. It works in person too.
TIP: Smile and you will actually feel more positive emotion. The firing of facial muscles when you smile is linked to the actual experience of happiness. I like to begin with listening hard, and trying to find something to connect with that makes me genuinely smile. Once I get that first smile on my face, it tends to stay there and/or reappear more naturally. I think it’s because the donor prospect feels I’m authentic, so they smile back. And now we’re on friendly, not guarded and wary, ground.
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