To touch or not to touch

Yesterday was an interesting day in my union world. I spent the day meeting with members, typical for a union day and what I truly love to do. Union days are special to me. As a shop steward, my main job is to take members on a journey through their collective agreement rights. If I do my job well, I take their managers on the same journey and we all come away with everyone’s integrity in tact.

I have one goal in my general life, and if you have read my blog a lot, you already know what it is: I want to be more charming. Why? Because charming people have more influence. In my world of stewarding and representing members, if I can get through a difficult meeting and have everyone feel respected and heard, and yes, that also means the manager, then I have been successful. Hard meetings require huge amounts of credibility. My job from one meeting to to the next is to build my reputation so that I can get the best possible outcome in every situation.

Some meetings, however, have nothing to do with the collective agreement, and this has been the subject that has nibbled at me until right now, my 5.30 am blog post. Most of my meetings yesterday were about personal issues from the members and my sole job was to find union resources to help them. That’s a challenge because not everything they needed was union-based, but in the end I think I got what they needed from community resources as well. It worked out.

(I think. I mean, I don’t know. Some of those meetings were so outside my wheelhouse, I’m not sure if I missed a piece. That kept me awake most of last night.) I feel like I’m being cryptic because I’m trying to set the stage with the visual of my day without divulging anything identifying. Let me get where I’m going.

Yeah! Nailing it in meetings. (It’s a stock photo but it totally conveys what I feel.)

Resources aside, my biggest lesson in supporting a dozen people with a dozen different needs is how to match their body language. When I first began as a steward, my sole job was to go to meetings with a notebook and pen, furiously scribble notes, and leave the meeting having prepared for the next step of a grievance. That’s still my role, but body language is my tool of choice. And that has made all the difference.

A person who has perfect, upright posture, who sits stoically with dignity, will not benefit from me slouching in my chair, sprawled over it and acting casual. And goodness help me if I try and hug them at the end of the meeting. It will, in a nutshell, freak them out. A little piece of their brain will scream that that I am not capable of understanding them. Conversely, a person who touches my arm constantly, who angles their chair towards mine and leans in to talk as if we are sharing hushed, whispered secrets, will not benefit from me being the person with perfect upright carriage and a chair squarely facing the table.

So in meeting after meeting, I swivelled my chair, or didn’t, leaned in, or didn’t, touched someone’s arm or didn’t, and just generally matched their body language to create the intimacy of mirrored trust.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t know I did this until yesterday. I learned because I was taking another steward with me. He is a new steward and he sat there, armed with his pen and notebook, and took notes. (Remember, this is the first skill of a new steward.) After our fourth meeting, he asked me, “So can you be stopped from saving the world?” I laughed and asked if this was an intervention. And when we debriefed about what he saw, that was when I realized that at some point in my stewarding life, I learned that matching body language was the key to making the best of the worst situations. By mirroring the body language of everyone in the room when they were speaking to me, they trust me. That trust translates into influence. It’s how I negotiate.

It is interesting to see myself after someone else has observed me. I’m clearly still trying to understand what they saw so that I can turn it into a lesson I can share or understand better. But if I understand how yesterday rolled out, a skill I want to refine is how to be a chameleon with my interactions. I want it to be less unconscious and more refined.

Food for thought as I mull yesterday over.