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Digital communication, we were told, would save us time and strengthen relationships.
It seems the jury is still out on how that’s really working.
Sure, sending a brief text or email can be quicker than playing phone tag. But there are risks.
Occasionally the miscue is simply a typo, like the time I began an email with “Hell, Bob”—which could have come across as disgust, when what I intended to type was a friendly “Hello, Bob.” Oops. Fortunately, Bob responded with a chuckle.
In our new work-from-anywhere world, not all bloopers end so well. Email anxiety and Zoom fatigue are at an all-time high. Leaders struggle to keep their teams connected and engaged. Some of the tools that made remote work possible came with the unintended consequences of misunderstanding, conflict, and distrust.
Erica Dhawan can help. She’s the author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection No Matter the Distance.
Erica is a globally recognized leadership and communication expert who helps organizations and leaders improve their collaboration skills. She has an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, an MBA from MIT Sloan, and a BS from The Wharton School.
Erica’s counsel on communicating effectively in today’s digital world is both timely and smart.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Even in their personal relationships, many people rely heavily on email or text messages to communicate. In terms of conveying intended tone, what challenges do those tools present?
Erica Dhawan: The very digital tools that set us free also create widespread misunderstanding and conflict, which in turn manifest as across-the-board anxiety, fear, distrust, and paranoia. After all, nonverbal body cues make up the majority of the meaning we take away from a conversation. They’re the key to first impressions and long-term business relationships alike. Many more people are saying their teams are overthinking their emails, ruminating on confusing messages or stressed about communicating with customers online.
Overall, the loss of body language cues and tone is perpetuating an anxiety-ridden workplace.
Duncan: How can people really “connect” with each other when roughly 70% of all communication among team members now occurs digitally?
Dhawan: The foundations of good leadership are the same both online and off. But leaders may need to compensate for the shortcomings of digital communication by being more observant, more careful, and more prepared. More observant in that they need to be attuned to the unique digital body language cues of their team members so they can tell when something is off—i.e., when people are feeling disconnected, undervalued, etc. And that goes right along with being more careful with their own digital body language—from remembering to show each team member that they’re valued and appreciated to sending messages that are unambiguous and complete. And lastly, you need to arrive ready to lead.
Digital teams demand more preparation than in-person ones because you’re dealing with a lack of body language, potential connectivity issues, and the inherent awkwardness of “Can you hear me?” and “Oops-no-you-go-first.”
Duncan: What are some examples of how traditional body language has been “translated” into digital body language?
Dhawan: With traditional body language, if you’re talking to someone and their head is tilted to the side, it demonstrates that they are actively listening. In digital body language actively listening involves “liking” a text or a detailed reply to an email.
A second example is smiling. We all know when someone is smiling when we’re face to face. The way to show we’re smiling digitally is to use exclamation points and emojis (well, within reason) and to add nice phrases such as “Have a great weekend” to the end of an email.
A third example is pausing for a few seconds and nodding, signaling you’re thinking about what’s just been said. When communicating across a screen, taking a few extra minutes to write a longer or more detailed response to an email that shows thought and focus.
Duncan: What are your top five or six tips on digital body language best practices during Zoom or Webex sessions?
Dhawan: Video meetings and conference calls take up most of our time now. Here is my five-step guide to having the best meetings.
- In video meeting calls and conference calls you should make introductions, if necessary. Virtual meetings, especially when tuning in from home, have the potential to feel more personal (and uncomfortable) than in-person meetings. Ensure that everyone is identified, along with their position, at the start, and allow a few minutes for social chatter.
- Keep things short and sweet. Most of us are accustomed to face-to-face meetings and conference sessions that last over an hour. In that kind of three-dimensional environment, participants have a full range of stimuli, fewer outside distractions, and are generally more easily engaged for longer periods of time. Virtual events leave much more room for distractions and multitasking. A planned structure and a ticking clock can help.
- Raise your hand. One great advantage of video chatting is that built-in mechanisms often exist for raising your hand (the space bar can generate hand-raising on Zoom). This can help avoid the issues common with phone calls, e.g., people talking over one another, or cutting someone off. If your software lacks a “hand raise” feature, you can establish one in a side chatbox. Designate a signal—like an asterisk—to allow team members to request their turn to speak. (This requires careful moderating and good leadership.) Make sure you’re not overlooking anyone, and try to ask for opinions from the silent types.
- Always appoint a moderator. Having a consistent face and voice that “stitches together” the virtual sessions for participants adds much-needed familiarity, and helps to lessen feelings of isolation that online occasionally bring. One good tip is to have the event moderator open up the conference or meeting, while taking charge of staying on the agenda and moderating questions for speakers as they pop up in the sideline chat.
- Insist that everyone use the Mute button to prevent audio feedback and keep breathing, writing, and fidgeting noises (otherwise known as distractions) to a bare minimum. This is especially important in bigger team meetings.
Duncan: What’s the key to responding to a digital message that comes across as ambiguous?
Dhawan: Senior leaders have a well-deserved reputation for sending sloppy texts and sloppier emails with poor sentences, bad grammar, atrocious spelling. Brevity can make a person appear important, but it can also hurt business. As recipients of cryptic messages, we overthink things in an effort to fill missing words and absent meanings, prompting a lot of stress and confusion.
If you receive an unclear message, it’s important to reply and ask clarifying questions such as “Can you share what you need from me?” or “Thanks, when do you need this?” If you are still confused about the project, change the medium to a phone call, video or face-to-face meeting to learn additional context.
If you consistently feel there’s a disconnect between your messages and the responses you’re getting, ask yourself if it’s clear what the recipient needs to do, why and when. Are you using the right communication channel? Would a quick phone call provide more context than an email?
Duncan: Even if they don’t acknowledge it, some people are introverts. What are some good ways to get them comfortably engaged in a world of digital communications?
Dhawan: We should be aware of the different ways team members engage in conversation. To digitally connect with introverts, use tools like a chat bar or hand-raising feature to designate who has the floor to speak, and choose a moderator to ensure that it’s upheld. Silence feels awkward in virtual meetings as it’s a challenge to know what other people are thinking. As the leader of a meeting, practice waiting at least five seconds before speaking after asking a question.
Encourage your team members to complete a Google Form that collects anonymous questions and concerns before the next team meeting. This creates a psychological safe team environment for both introverts and extroverts. If a question or concern doesn’t get answered, ask them to email or message you with their thoughts after a meeting.
Duncan: You suggest four “laws” of digital body language—Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, Collaborate Confidently, and Trust Totally. Please give us a brief example of what each one looks like in actual practice.
Dhawan: In order to truly understand this new ideal of communication, we need to understand these four laws.
- Value Visibly is about being attentive and aware of others, while also communicating, “I understand you” and “I appreciate you.”
- We Communicate Carefully when we know why each person copied on the message is accountable, and who is responsible for the next steps.
- Collaborating Confidently means managing the fear, uncertainty and worry that define modern workplaces—and understanding that even when things get crazy, employees are there to support one another.
- The “Totally” part of Trust Totally is key, since it implies the highest levels of organizational faith where people tell the truth, keep their word and deliver on their commitments.
Duncan: What do you see as generational differences in the way people communicate in a digital world?
Dhawan: Different generations don’t merely use different digital body language, they also have different interpretations of the same digital body language cues. A 30-year-old woman is likely to perceive the same text message differently than a man 30 years her senior. One generation’s expressions of joy, or considerateness, can be another’s expressions of immaturity, or rudeness.
Medium preferences are another generational challenge. For example, a senior manager (a digital adapter) might be more comfortable with a phone call or in person meeting compared to a first-year associate (a digital native) who might prefer a text or Slack message.
Effective digital body language is about tailoring communication—not to fit the natural preferences of one generation over the other but to meet the demands of the task at hand.
Duncan: What advice do you have for people who are genuinely interested in improving their own empathic listening and observing skills but who have neither the time nor inclination to study body language as long and as carefully as you have?
Dhawan: Misunderstandings are rampant in today’s workplaces. While poor communication habits may feel inevitable with colleagues, we should always strive to engage with clarity and empathy, especially as we come to rely more on remote work and digital communication. What’s a good first step to improving our habits? Relearning what it means to read carefully and write clearly.
So, before you send off that next email, pause and ask yourself these three questions:
- Is my email too brief? Spending an extra two minutes to proofread an email can drastically help improve the clarity of your messages.
- What tone am I projecting? Tone—the overall attitude, or character, of a message—is another key component of strong reading and writing skills.
- Would it help to talk instead? With so many written platforms at our disposal, we can also get caught up in asking too many small questions in emails or group chats.
Lacking cues like eye contact, tone of voice, or body language to clarify what another person means makes digital communication challenging. In lieu of traditional body language, having the skills to read and write carefully is essential to organizations who want to make sure their teams are on the same page and excel in our virtual world.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.