To Touch or Not To Touch

I recently got an e-mail from a former co-worker and current friend, who asked:

Do you think managers should be more ‘touchy-feely’? Here is a pretty interesting collection of studies, summaries that have looked at the power of non-sexual touch.


Hi Gord,

I’ve done a little experiment since you sent this link to me. I’ve reached out and touched some of my clients at the end of our sessions – usually a full open palm on the back, shoulder, or arm. It’s had mixed results. Some seem to welcome the touch. They know that we’re connecting and supporting each other. Others seem to tolerate it, or wonder what I’m up to. I’m not a touchy-feely guy by nature, so my first advice would be:

It Depends

Some people will welcome it and need it. It’s reassuring for them. For others it’s threatening and unwelcome. Likewise unconsciously pulling away from somebody with whom you’re trying to build a relationship, and who reaches out to you, is counter-productive. So my second piece of advice would be:

Watch Carefully

Watch carefully how they react and watch carefully how you react. It comes back to being mindful of what’s happening around you. For those of us who are task/doing oriented versus people oriented this is a conscious effort.

I’m not saying you should start working the room and back-slapping it that’s not your nature (or stop if it is). It might be as simple as not making a face when somebody shakes our hand for a little too long (or noticing when somebody is being uncomfortable with your too-long-for-them handshake).

If you’re more people oriented remember, not wanting to be touched doesn’t mean we don’t like you. Your enthusiastic approach to life is great, but there are some out there who might misinterpret your intentions.

Be Sincere

So if you’re trying to fake sincerity, and if you do you’re going to get busted, you’ll be harming the relationship. If somebody suspect on a subconscious level that you’re hamming it up just to influence them, even if that isn’t your intention, the trust you’re trying to gain will be lost instead. You’re better off keeping your hands to yourself (if that’s who you really are) than coming across as awkward and fake.

The opposite is also true – if you’re an outgoing person by nature, being stiff and formal will be odd, and people will notice. Like a tie that doesn’t match your suit. Better not to wear the tie than to try to fit in.

If you’re Bill Clinton or Tony Robbins, this advice doesn’t apply to you. Influences of that skill and depth have their own personal reality-distortion fields. If you’re not, don’t try and fake it.

In order to influence people, we have to make them feel comfortable and safe. So my last piece of advice is:

Pay Attention

Adjust your behaviour to your audience. Drucker said “Communication is what the listener does.” In this case it means learning to adjust our style on a moment-by-moment basis to the people we’re with and the situation we’re in. Nothing tells somebody we care as much as paying attention to them. There are no cookie-cutter solutions when it comes to people. You want to influence them? Pay attention.

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

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