Face To Face

by Bates, Suzanne Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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The other night three of us from our firm were taking the high speed Acela train home from New York. We clambered aboard at Penn Station and grabbed one of those foursome setups where the seats face each other. I was okay with it as long as I didnft have to ride backward. With one empty seat left, we were relieved and delighted when our friend Marcia unexpectedly appeared, exclaiming well, my day just got a whole lot better!

I've never sat in the foursome set up; as a matter of fact, as a single passenger I've always avoided the area; a lot of people just don't get the concept of a quiet voice. Sit too close and you're never going to escape the intimate details of their office gossip or desperate housewife type stories. However, sitting there really is fun. These seats were made for talking. Itfs even better if you walk back to the cafe car and pick up a half bottle of their finest Acela chardonnay. Three hours to Westwood Route 128 never went so fast.

It got me to thinking about the lost art of communicating face to face. Interestingly on the ride TO New York our team was seated in the traditional face-forward seats. Comfortable and roomy but conversation is a struggle. Your neck gets tired. Itfs easier to read the newspaper.

So what is it about being face to face with another human being that utterly changes everything?

There's way more to this than I would presume to cover in a blog article. But a quick analysis of the obvious is a good remind of why it's important to go the extra mile to meet with someone, or for that matter, just walk down the hall.

First and foremost it's about the emotional connection. The reason we put those happy and sad :( face symbols into our emails is because it's nearly impossible to convey emotion in writing. Everything you write can be misinterpreted, not only in terms of what you mean, but how you feel. You can quickly convert a friend to a stranger or an enemy with one stroke of the computer key.

Second, face to face community creates clarity. If you say something the other person doesn't understand you get an immediate nonverbal cue; you rephrase, discuss, dissect, debate and dust it. Dust it is the expression my wonderful friend Kasey invented; it describes taking a topic to a granular level. As in, when you're finished, there is simply nothing left to say. It's hard to do it on the phone unless you know each other really, really well.

Third, when you get together with people you always take a little more time because it was so much effort to get there in the first place. Whether you're driving into the city or flying cross country or around the world, you've made the investment so the meeting is going to get more time.

That means you'll probably have the opportunity to talk about more stuff. And that could lead to something in your mutual interest. E-mail was never meant for that. Neither was the phone. Most people want to get on and get off. Thirty minutes is an eternity in the phone world. It's just too darn hard to make small talk when you donft have the advantage of visual cues. People are stepping on one anothers conversations. Itfs the only choice when you are working across distance and time zones, but it never will be better than it is. Virtual meetings are certainly an improvement but the technology just isn't that accessible. And as high tech as it is, I still don't think you can virtually shake somebodys hand.

The Professional Convention Management Association reported last year that meetings got axed during the downturn. Twothirds (67%) of meeting planners said their total annual budget for off-site meetings were significantly decreasing in 2009; more than one-half (53%) expected the trend to carry over into 2010.

We shouldn't be making our decisions about getting together because a few financial services companies themselves into hot water for taking TARP money and then lavishing top sales people with trips to Bermuda. The rest of us need to manage expenses, but we also need to get together. You just can't get a really productive conversation going if you don't. You need to meet face to face with your customers and prospects, colleagues and people in your industry.

You don't need to go crazy. Meeting people takes time. I have another friend who terms people lunch-worthy. I'm not sure whether she invented the phrase but it's brilliant. Requires no explanation. There are a lot of reasons NOT to have lunch, breakfast or even coffee. You only have so many hours in the day. Still, every time I take the time to get in the car, drive to my client, park, and walk in the door of a client's office, Ifm glad I did. You don't know whatfs going to happen but therefs a safe bet it will be better than what was going to happen on the phone.

We've all become quite comfortable emailing people who are down the hall, even sitting outside our offices. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Ask anybody in our office. They get more e-mails from me than anyone else they know in the course of the average day. I guess I do it because itfs convenient. You donft have to poke your head in and see if they are free - you're not interrupting them - you can say it when itfs on your mind - you have a written record - etc. etc. etc.

Still, as we all know, the magic happens face-to-face. My advice is to think about how you can just connect more often. Whether it's your boss, your employee, your colleague, your client, prospect, supplier, your coach or mentor, maybe it's time to take a meeting.

Acela Chardonnay, anyone?