An Effective (and Underused) Way to Reassure and Motivate

Yoga is astonishingly predictable. Invariably after an hour class I feel light, supple, strong, and refreshed. But Liz’s class felt even better than others. Afterwards I felt stronger and more refreshed.

I mentioned this to Sam*, a friend who was in the class with me. He smiled. “You know why, right?”

“Enlighten me,” I said.

He looked over at the yoga teacher. “As Liz walks around the room, she adjusts us in our yoga poses.”

“So our poses are deeper?”

Sam shook his head. “It’s not just the poses. It’s the touch. It feels good to have someone touch you.”

I immediately realized Sam was right. When Liz placed her hands lightly on my shoulders to deepen a twist, or pressed softly on my lower back to help me fold over, not only did I relax more, but I felt comforted, secure, and supported. Which helped me take a risk and go further in the stretch.

It turns out this isn’t just a yoga thing.

In a classic experiment from the 1950s and 60s, University of Wisconsin researcher Harry Harlow separated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers 6 to 12 hours after birth.

He placed them in a cage with a choice of surrogate mothers — one made of wire, another made of terry cloth. The babies always clung to the terry cloth “mother,” even when it was the wire “mother” who provided the food. It turns out that even the semblance of touch is a stronger attractor than the provision of sustenance.

Ah, you’re thinking, but those are monkeys. And baby monkeys at that. Surely adult human beings are more sophisticated and independent.

Maybe a little. But just a little. Professor Jonathan Levav at Columbia University and Jennifer Argo at University of Alberta conducted a series of experiments to explore how a brief light touch can affect a person’s decision making and risk taking.

In one experiment, as a woman showed subjects to their seats in the lab, she lightly and briefly touched some of them on the back of their shoulder. Then researchers asked the subjects whether they would prefer a certain amount of money or whether they’d prefer to gamble for the chance to win more money, receiving nothing if they lost. The people who were touched were 50 percent more likely to take the gamble. 50 percent!

And it’s not just any touch. A handshake didn’t achieve the same result. A handshake isn’t comforting, but a touch on the shoulder or back is.

There’s more. According to a recent article in the New York Times, a sympathetic touch from a doctor gives people the feeling that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. And students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not. Also, it turns out, that basketball teams whose players touch each other more tend to win more games.

The data is clear: the comfort of a supportive touch helps people feel understood and leads to more courageous performance.

But wait, you’re wondering, what would HR say? I mean, we can’t ask people to go around touching each other at work. Can we?

I think we can.

But here’s the thing: touch is an incredibly powerful communication tool. Powerful enough to communicate your subtle intentions.

In a study led by Mathew Herstein, an associate professor of psychology at DePauw University, pairs of students who didn’t know each other took turns using touch to try to convey a specific emotion like gratitude or sympathy. The person touched was blindfolded and yet accurately identified which emotion the touch intended to communicate between 50 and 78 percent of the time. That’s the same level of understanding achieved through verbal and facial communication.

In other words, touch is just as clear as words. And because it’s used sparingly, can have much greater impact.

Which means you have to be careful — and self aware — when you use it. Your intentions need to be clear and above reproach.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t linger. The research shows that a fleeting touch is all it takes to support and reassure. Any longer than a few seconds could feel creepy.

So I’m not suggesting you lovingly caress a co-workers face. But a comforting pat on the back? A soft and brief touch on the shoulder? Those small, heartfelt acts could make our workplaces more humane — and more productive. And we need that, especially in the midst of a recession that’s dragging on and affecting morale at companies around the world.

Maybe that’s one reason I keep going back to Liz’s yoga class.

*Names changed.