At a glance
When we talk to each other face-to-face, we rely on a variety of visual and behavioural cues to communicate our feelings and interpret others’ reactions.
With so many of our in-person interactions replaced by virtual meetings and digital communication channels, we have to rely on reading body language, postures, emotions and gestures through the screen.
In the early stages of the pandemic, it seems most workers coped well. It is when we rely purely on text, via email, text messaging or Slack conversations that we lose the personal touch.
Tone is often lost when relying purely on text.
A Forbes and Zoom survey conducted last year found that 58 per cent of professionals agreed that video communications improved senior leadership’s communication with employees, improving trust.
The flip side of digital communication, though, is the frustration that comes with a conversation gone wrong, be it on email, video or text.
With digital communication here to stay, two experts share practical steps professionals can take to avoid the common traps many of us fall into when communicating online.
1. Listen more, talk less
“Humans yearn to belong by being heard and valued for our intellectual contribution,” says Ciara Lancaster, change fatigue and resilience specialist at Reimagine Change.
“But now we need to sharpen our listening skills and intentionally lean in and display active listening cues such as visible nodding and thoughtful commenting when prompted.
“It all starts with you closing your mouth and seeking the true meaning being delivered by the messenger.”
Lancaster says that better listening cultivates psychological safety that is critical for teams to share ideas, market intelligence and erase conflict.
2. Show active participation
Robbie Robertson, virtual office managing partner at Deloitte Australia, has been leading the firm’s transition to virtual communications.
In the absence of visual cues such as nodding in affirmation in a physical meeting to show active engagement, Robertson recommends using the reactions and chat function.
“Use of emojis gives us the ability to emotionally respond without interrupting the flow of conversation,” says Robertson.
“A smile or thumbs up emoji lets the presenter know they are on the right page without interrupting the flow of conversation.
“You can also show you are listening by asking questions in the chat function, which the presenter can look at when they can.”
On the other hand, if you are presenting or leading the conversation, Robertson suggests two things.
“First, making a conscious effort to ask questions gives people a chance to chime in and makes the conversation more natural – like being in a room.”
Second, Robertson says, is addressing your question to someone by saying their name first.
“This makes it easy for the person to respond while allowing the rest of the team to listen rather than respond.”
3. Control or adjust your voice
“In 2021, voice is what will distinguish virtual persuasion over virtual presenteeism,” says Lancaster.
Voice modulation is when you choose to go louder or softer, faster or slower, to communicate your message more effectively.
“Few leaders are brave enough to admit they probably aren’t where they need to be and proactively upskill. This requires a significant audit of tone, linguistic patterns and content conviction.”
Lancaster says investing in our vocal game can reduce uncertainty, help overcome unspoken fears and influence others in a more impactful and time-efficient way.
4. Before you write, think
Lancaster says paying attention to written communication is equally important when communicating digitally.
She cautions slipping into self-serving behaviour by respecting the virtual norms of your colleagues and clients.
“Apply the ‘Platinum Rule’ – treat others how they want to be treated,” she says.
Lancaster suggests being aware that your team is likely to be experiencing cognitive overload. She says to:
- Keep your writing brain-friendly
- Make information readable, relatable and real
- Edit your content
- Use lists
- Limit calls to action
- Write your “key ask” at the top and bottom of the email for clarity, brevity and likeability
Follow basic etiquette
According to The Definitive Book of Body Language, about 65 per cent of communication is non-verbal.
When you’re not on video, you’re missing emotional cues that come from facial expression, body language and behaviour.
Robertson says keeping the video switched on in meetings indicates respect for other people.
“Being on video shows that you have made an effort and also promotes inclusivity in meetings.”
He also suggests being mindful of how you present yourself in virtual meetings with a simple mantra: “When in doubt, just think whether you'd do something in a face-to-face meeting.”
For example, you could eat on a video call if you are in a meeting with close colleagues, but not when you are in a professional meeting with clients or the broader team.
“If you are not sure about the dress code for virtual meetings, ask yourself: “Would I wear gym wear or nightwear in a professional setting? If the answer is ‘No’, don’t wear it,” he says.