Four problems in virtual communications and how to fix them
The lift of an eyebrow, the tone of voice, a shake of the head. These are the ways we decode other people’s interests but, as more and more of our communication is digital, they are notably absent. Instead, substitute email that can be wrongly interpreted, sound going in and out on the live Skype interview and your mind wandering as you try to read the book titles on the shelf behind the manager in a video conference.
“For most people, moving into the digital world to communicate means experiencing significant loss of clarity, ease and depth,” says communications coach Nick Morgan in a new book Can you Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World
The online world is the emotional equivalent of Pringles – you have to keep dipping back into the can to get more because a few don’t satisfy
“You struggle to convey the lightness of tone you want in an email and risk offending your colleague because the smile doesn’t come through. You tune out of the audioconference because you can’t stay focused virtually for 90 minutes. You flounder to find the right sense of engagement on a Skype call.”
Digital communication may be cheap and fast but they lack emotional connection. Digital demands a new set of rules for communication, says Morgan. Here’s why and some tips to fixing it:
- Lack of feedback
In the physical world implicit and explicit feedback mix in a way that feels effortless thanks to largely unconscious sensory information that goes with our words. But in the digital world almost all these senses are deprived and instead the brain fills the empty space with assumptions, memories and fake data. The result? All the misunderstandings we are familiar with.
What to do
Virtual feedback should be appropriate to the effort, occasion and recipient. It should be honest but not cruel and both authoritative and humble. Feedback should be specific and focused on the relevant object, performance or creation and should never be more about the giver than the recipient. It should be offered in generosity and received in humility and, like trust, falls apart in virtual exchanges because it lacks the unconscious content of human emotional exchange, so consciously restore the emotions in an exchange.
Top tip: emojis
Begin a virtual conference by sending out several emojis, or symbols, agreed on in advance by your team to indicate their emotional state at the start of the communication. Have the entire team check in this way – make it a deliberate and habitual practice. Thumbs up, horizontal or down could mean, for example, ‘all good’, ‘not a great day’ or ‘all hell is breaking loose’. The finish your virtual meeting by reporting the emojis again, following up for clarification if required.
- Lack of empathy
The online workplace is emotionally stunted. Many problems stem from the inability of humans to get unconscious emotional feedback online, leading to a lack of empathy. Communications to teams works best when all participants communicate in roughly equal measure but that is hard to get right in the virtual world. We tend to shout, cut other people off and tire quickly on video. Consistency in communications is even more important in the virtual world than in the face-to-face world.
What to do
Increase your own efforts to be more emotionally transparent and authentic. The online world is the emotional equivalent of Pringles – you have to keep dipping back into the can to get more because a few don’t satisfy. You therefore have to be clearer in your own mind on what you intend, expect and require.
Increase your efforts to demand the same emotional clarity of others. Remember, to a great extent you are what you say online. So regularly test your online expressions and connections by asking: are they authentic, clear, complete and consistent? Your online presence needs regular housekeeping.
The virtual safe space: every important digital connection needs to conclude with a time-limited, virtual safe space where participants both get and use the time to state their emotional reaction to the outcomes of the discussion.
Top tip: assign an MC of chair for regular meetings
For virtual meetings assign one person in the role of MC, or chair. This person should start by asking how everyone is today and getting specific answers for all participants. Then he or she should monitor the meeting in terms of participation to ensure equality. Finally, the MC should check in with everyone at the end of the meeting to ascertain the outcomes: what do you take away from today’s meeting and how do you feel about it.
- Lack of emotion
Have you ever put a conference call on mute while talking to a colleague or checking Facebook? Why do you expect people to stay focused on hour-long conference calls the whole time? Virtual communication requires us to make an extra effort to be connected in human ways to our colleagues and to think through when and how we’re reaching people.
Studies show that, on a typical conference call, more than 60% of supposed participants are doing email, other work, shopping, eating or even taking another call. Yet more than 80% of teams and 90% of projects now have at least one team members not physically in the same location as the other workers.
In the interests of efficiency and the historical accident of invention we’ve adopted a system of digital communication that is deeply unsatisfying for us humans because it doesn’t allow us to gather and exchange the information we want in the way we’re used to. It prevents us from connecting emotionally with fellow humans, when unconscious emotional connection is a key aspect of human information gathering and sharing system. Most of the decisions we make are based on emotions.
What to do
Consciously develop a set of behaviours that give visual clues that help regulate the flow of conversation, such as nodding, leaning forward or letting people know you are coming to an end by putting it into your conversation: ‘I’m almost done here’. Determine the pace by deliberately mentioning length of turns: ‘Let’s take one minute to comment on the point Mary has raised’. Practice putting the emotion back in through your voice pitch: by slowing and lowering your pitch, for example. you indicate authority and calm.
Top tip: virtual temperature check
Like the emojis, consider a system that enables everyone to signal where they are emotionally that day. Those who signal green, for example, are saying they are fully energised and ready to participate, those who are yellow may mean something is pulling them away while red may mean there are significant challenges and potentially that person should be excused. This kind of analysis can also be charted over time to provide data about the emotional attitudes of workers and their fluctuations over the work year.
- Lack of commitment
In the virtual world, trust is more fragile. You can’t accomplish the same kind of gut check that leads to a handshake deal in the real world. We need to learn a new kind of transparent behaviour to build virtual engagement. Virtual connections are less satisfying than personal ones.
When you work in the same office with someone five days a week, you naturally build up at least a minimal personal relationship. When you work on a virtual team the water-cooler moments are largely gone. Trust comes from commitment and credibility.
What to do
Social network tools can help but it’s important for authenticity and self-consistency to be real online. Use them to expand your sphere of competence – become the go-to person in your organisation for something that matters to you. Use online networking to be vulnerable. Most people are well intentioned and delighted to help when they perceive a sincere need.
Successful online relationships begin face-to-face. If you’ve got a team that is going to work on a vital project for a year, then bite the financial bullet and bring them together face-to-face. This simple technique can save enormous amounts of money and time down the project road.
Top tip: the update video
The ideal way to build trust is to mix the real and virtual worlds, but this isn’t always possible. So, create brief (30-60 second) videos that show you doing something in your real locale, connecting with local food, culture or situations in a way that anchors you in your environment. Your whole team should do the same and share the videos regularly – a virtual library of real moments. But remember to keep it short and light.
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