Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
We are social beings. Effective communication is crucial in having satisfying relationships in both our work environments and in our personal lives. The inadequacy of communicating virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic highlights human longings for connection and the need to adapt current practices.
Ingredients for Good Communication
There are a variety of ingredients which are essential in a recipe. Leaving one out may have disastrous results in the final product! Good communication also combines several elements such as a teamwork mindset, active listening, emotional intelligence and non-verbal expressions. These are essential in successfully transmitting information. Leaving out a critical component might result in adverse outcomes.
- A teamwork mindset requires a willingness to share ideas and opinions. Even introverted team members who find this difficult can find ways outside of a larger group to contribute, whether through one-on-one interaction or written communication.
- Active listening is grounded in a desire to understand what the other is saying, even when disagreeing. It does not focus on fixing situations but instead allows the other to process aloud what they are thinking and why. It requires silencing your thoughts, not thinking about what you will say next, not interrupting with a similar story of your own, or giving advice. Active listening involves being respectfully present or being with the speaker, appreciating being trusted with their thoughts and words.
- Emotional intelligence first perceives emotion, then uses that information to decide what to pay attention to and to discern what might trigger that display of emotion. It requires regulating our own emotions and encompasses our response to the feelings of others. Since emotions are temporary in their duration, controlling impulsivity in reactions allows you to move past initial feelings to empathize with others if you were to find yourself in their circumstances.
- Non-verbal communication includes body language and tone of voice, with facial expressions as a universal form. They usually convey happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. The eyes, as the window of the soul, can indicate interest and attention with their gaze. The mouth and lips can convey happiness or disapproval with the slightest turn. Gestures, while sometimes cultural, can also express emotion or approval. Posture and proxemics (personal space), can indicate friendliness or even the level of friendship between people.
A magic formula often referred to in seminars for understanding the various components in communication are the numbers 7/38/55. This formula refers to a 1967 communication study by Albert Mehrabian, which said that 7% of communication occurs through spoken words, 38% through vocal tone of voice, and 55% through body language. It seems to imply that the most critical aspects of communication are non-verbal. However, anyone who has visited a foreign country knows that non-verbal communication alone can only convey the most basic of messages. Misquotes of Merhabian’s findings are common. However, the study examined how people understand attitudes of like or dislike and should not be applied outside those perameters. In the context of emotions, non-verbal expressions do provide a great deal of information. When uncertain about the meaning of the words, people do pay more attention to non-verbal cues, and without being able to see or hear the non-verbal cues, the risk of misunderstanding is greater. Referring to the importance of behavior in communication, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say”. Therefore, when the words and non-verbal indicators do not match, trust in the words is greatly diminished.
Current Issues in Communication
Face masks, social distancing, and virtual meetings have become the norm during the pandemic and have resulted in Zoom fatigue, lower engagement levels, and a great deal of frustration. These adverse outcomes are a result of missing critical ingredients in our communication recipe.
Reduced contact with others can contribute to feeling more suspicious of others. That, in turn, can result in defensiveness, reinforcing suspicion, and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This negative spiral inhibits the teamwork mindset and hampers emotional intelligence and empathy.
Masks have made non-verbal communication more difficult. Not only do they muffle the voice for those hard of hearing and cover the mouth for those who read lips, but they make reading those universal facial expressions challenging.
We used to enter a room, read its nonverbal cues and adjust quickly to the circumstances. Now we try to figure out how to read the cues in the many virtual rooms represented on the screen. Simultaneously the overloaded brain must sort out where to focus our gaze – to the eyes on the screen or to the camera. The transmission delay freezing the facial movements or alternately garbling the voice and the background distractions, are additional challenges contributing to brain fatigue.
Many people feel self-conscious seeing themselves on the screen. The unstructured small talk that would have happened before the big meeting is now absent, reducing feelings of connection between people. The proxemics (personal space) clues are also missing and cannot advise us on how comfortable others are with our relationship. Keeping a social distance of 4 to 12 feet was generally for acquaintances, and close friends would normally stand 1.5 to 4 feet away. It is hard to read kinesics (movements and gestures) when you are not in the same room. Are they fidgeting because their child has come into the room or because they are bored?
Adapting the recipe
While our situation and tools may have changed, the basic human needs for communication and connection have not. Like substitutions in a recipe, find ways to adapt virtual experiences to human needs. Not everything about the current situation is negative. After all, everyone is getting better at using communication technology. Instead of comparing to how things used to be, embrace the changes with creativity!
To avoid the brain fatigue that comes with virtual communication, resist the temptation of multitasking. It overloads your already busy brain and possibly gives others the impression of disinterest. Intentionally take breaks to move and stretch physically. If virtual meetings make you feel pressured to have a designer workspace, use a simple room divider to hide clutter and remove distractions in your environment. Alternatively, use the “blur” feature in Microsoft Teams or Zoom to make your home environment more understated, or use their background options if you like a simple, non-distracting background.
Enhance teamwork by keeping meetings small and making sure everyone has a chance to speak in turn. Ensure that tasks and responsibilities are clearly assigned. Ask for comments from everyone and ask for clarification. Rather intentionally over-communicate than risk under-communicating and miscommunicating. Be sure to train all team members in using the tools effectively. Screen sharing can be beneficial when instruction must happen remotely. Finally, use ice breakers to initiate small talk to enhance the sense of camaraderie among co-workers, and take time to ask about their family or weekend plans.
Engage as many senses as possible. A phone call is better than an email or text, and a video call offers more significant benefits than a traditional phone call. If possible, move the Microsoft Teams or Zoom app box closer to your camera to enable a more eye-contact-like environment and eliminate background noise through audio apps like Krisp.ai. Establish yourself in the center of the camera, ensure that the video feed is working, then feel free to use a feature in many apps to turn off the selfie box, reducing self-conscious feelings.
Be aware of how you appear to others and try to remain present and focused. Sitting upright with the body open communicates friendliness, whereas sitting hunched forward and arms crossed can send boredom, hostility, or anxiety signals. Compensate for the loss of proxemics and kinesics by using language and tone to express emotions (e.g., saying, “hearing that makes me so happy!” when you are wearing a mask and they cannot see your smile).
Work on enhancing your active listening skills. Focus on trying to understand the reasoning the speaker is using, even if you disagree. Do not make assumptions but rather always ask for a clear answer. When asked to respond, be prompt and ensure your reply is also clear. Allow each speaker extra time to explain in greater detail than you might have given in-person, as this may be a helpful way to compensate for the lack of body language.
When considering ways to enhance emotional intelligence and empathy, beware of the shortcomings of words only communication such as email and texts. While using emoticons can help discerning lighthearted and serious concerns, misunderstandings are still more likely. Use names when addressing people and communicate respect and appreciation for their input. Feeling understood often increases honesty and trust, resulting in more productive conversations.
Leverage the desire for connection and channel frustrations into finding new ways to express a teamwork mindset, active listening, empathy, and non-verbal cues. Remember what Emerson said about actions speaking louder than words? Be sure that spoken words and body language agree. This harmony will add flavor to the communication recipe! “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” (Colossians 4:6, New International Version – Bible)