"Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in the Virtual World"
By Jeanie Holt
The virtual world—email, conference calls, webinars—the thing we love to hate and know we can’t live without! These days we maintain our relationships and conduct so much of our work in the virtual world. Because this reality is new, we are only now beginning to research and understand how to work effectively in this space. A new book by Nick Morgan (Can you hear me? How to connect with people in the virtual world (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2018)), a top communications theorist, details our current state of understanding about the many forms virtual communications, the problems and pitfalls we encounter when using them, and some possible solutions for working more effectively in our virtual world.
The central premise of the book boils down to this: “Every form of virtual communication strips out the emotional subtext of our communications.”
Dr. Morgan reviews research and discusses implications of this simple but profound statement. He demonstrates that we are hardwired to pay attention to our emotions and those of others. Our brains learn and remember patterns of stimuli. We arrange these into a hierarchy based on their emotional content—those that evoke the strongest emotions are the most memorable. In addition, we observe, process, and recall much of this emotional content unconsciously. We also observe, process, and, to some extent, absorb the emotions of others. We use this understanding, this empathy, to adjust our own understanding of the situation. As Morgan puts it, “emotional truth is as important in communications as intellectual truth.”
A related issue is that without emotional cues and content to work with, a significant part of our brain is idle and bored. So, the brain fills in the void with assumptions, memories, daydreams, or other tasks—likely we are all guilty of checking email during conference calls, multi-tasking during webinars, and carrying on conversations while on “mute”.
Building on this basic premise, Morgan outlines five problems with virtual communications and suggests some techniques for beginning to address these issues.
- Lack of feedback: When Morgan discusses feedback, he speaks specifically of implicit forms: the feedback we receive from another person’s eyes, facial expressions, and body language. He also mentions explicit feedback—the words we use to give feedback. He points out, however, that face-to-face explicit feedback is accompanied by tone and body language that modifies the words. In the virtual world, lacking the implicit cues, misunderstanding of the explicit feedback can damage trust and openness in relationships.
- Lack of emotion: The loss of emotional communication goes beyond the feedback problem. When we take emotion out of the equation, the conversation “no longer engages our deep connections with other people.” For our brains, the virtual conversation, lacking feedback and emotion is not as engaging or important to our unconscious minds.
- Lack of empathy: We all know that distance makes it easier to objectify others, to separate people into us and them. The virtual world adds distance even as it shrinks the world. As Morgan puts it, in every virtual communication mode, “less of us gets through…we are a little blind, a little deaf, and a little less human…” As a result, we more easily jump to “confusions”; we judge more harshly; we don’t forgive as readily.
- Lack of connection and commitment: Without feedback, emotion, and empathy, making connections between folks becomes more difficult. It is also more challenging for people to commit: to the goal, to the process, to each other.
- Lack of control: Morgan points out that we no longer have “the right to be forgotten”. The virtual world “remembers” everything we post and you can bet that others look at the person the internet thinks we are.
Since we must continue to work in the virtual world, we must take steps to make our interactions in this world as effective as possible. Dr. Morgan repeatedly emphasizes two fundamental steps toward this end. First, “if you can possibly begin a relationship of any importance in person, you should do so. Period, full stop, end of discussion.” When this isn’t possible, we must be very aware that the relationship is fragile; trust will be harder to achieve and more easily broken.
Second, consciously and explicitly add the emotional content back into the virtual conversation. Dr. Morgan fills many pages with (sometimes repetitive) suggestions for doing this. Here are a few:
- Express your emotions verbally—“This idea excites me!”; “I feel worried about that.”; “I am so confused.”; “Your comment really upset me!” The leader should especially work to model this.
- Make space in your meetings for emotions. For example, the leader can say, “I am going summarize the discussion so far and then we will go round robin to hear how everyone feels at this point.” Then the leader should first model what is needed by using emotion words and then call on each person in turn (with the caveat that people can pass but push a little to try to get everyone to weigh in).
- Make space in your meetings for “water cooler chatting”. Personal “trivia” humanizes us, facilitates connections, and oils/lubricates the teamwork needed to accomplish the work.
- Check in with everyone at the beginning of the meeting. Morgan suggest using a color to make it a quick check-in: green = “I’m in a good space, awake, energetic, ready to work.”; yellow = “I’m a bit distracted by stuff outside this meeting but I’ll do my best to be present.”; red = “I’m having a week from hell!”. The leader can take these into account as the discussion proceeds, possibly excusing the person in a “red” space from the meeting entirely.
- Check in with folks at the end of the meeting as well.
Finally, for effective meetings, Morgan encourages the use of some ground rules that everyone commits to following:
- Meetings start on time—start dialing in (or getting on-line) 5-7 minutes before the actual start time;
- No email/side conversations during the meeting. Morgan cites research that suggests doodling helps people pay attention because it occupies that unconscious mind that gets bored in virtual meetings;
- Read the materials in advance—and the corollary: send the materials far enough in advance that people can get them read;
- Use a head set to ensure confidentiality for all participants;
- State your name at the beginning of every comment—phone technology cuts out a lot of the overtones of voices which makes it hard for some people to recognize who is speaking.
The book has chapters devoted to email and texting, conference calls, webinars, and chat sessions. Some of this gets repetitive; the book could have been shorter but it is rich in details and ideas making it worthwhile for those of us who conduct much of our work in the ever-growing virtual world.