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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Can You Hear Me? - How to Connect with People in a Virtual World

Q&A on the Book Can You Hear Me? - How to Connect with People in a Virtual World

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual communication cuts out the clear expression of human intent, leading to misunderstandings and miscommunications.
  • We spend so much of our time in the virtual world that we have to learn how to communicate clearly in it.
  • The use of emojis, and other signals and codes that express human emotion and intent, can be very helpful in improving communication in the virtual world.
  • Your email will be misread.  Your audio conference will cause miscommunication.  And even your video conference will create misunderstandings.
  • Humans care most about each other's intent.  Make that clear to your work colleagues and customers in the virtual world.

The book Can You Hear Me? - How To Connect With People in a Virtual World by Nick Morgan explores the challenges that virtual communication poses upon us and provides solutions and practical tips for connecting and communicating virtually with each other.

InfoQ readers can download a book abstract of Can You Hear Me?

InfoQ interviewed Morgan about what makes virtual communication so difficult, what can be done to compensate for the effects of a lack of body language, how effective virtual feedback should look, how we can build effective relationships online, how to create and maintain virtual places that feel safe for people, what can be done to make conference calls and video conferencing more effective, the mixture of tools and practices for communication in distributed teams, and what makes it so important to be intentional about emotion in the virtual world and how we can do that.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Nick Morgan: As I went around the world talking about body language, my favorite subject, I started getting asked the following question in the last several years:  OK, Dr. Morgan, if this body language is so important for communication, how do we communicate virtually?  My team is spread out around the world, and we never see each other face-to-face.  How do we communicate without much body language?  

As I kept getting asked the question, I thought it was time to do the research and write the book.

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Morgan: The book is primarily intended for business people who spend a good deal of time in the virtual world, whether it’s communicating via email, Slack, or other text-based systems, or communicating via audio conferences, or even video. But since so many of us now live in the half-face-to-face, half-virtual world personally as well as professionally, most people who have a digital life will find this book useful.  

InfoQ: What is it that makes virtual communication difficult?

Morgan: Most fundamentally, we humans communicate in two ways simultaneously.  We speak content, and we signal emotions, attitude, and intent through our body language.  The virtual world makes it hard to get those emotions, attitudes, and intent through body language.  So we only get half of our usual communication stream, and we find what’s left hard to understand.  

Here’s what’s going on.  We are all unwitting participants in a massive social experiment that began slowly after World War II and gathered speed in the last decade with the introduction of the smartphone. We have created virtual personas, online worlds, digital connections, social media lives, email relationships, audioconference teams—the whole panoply of ways that we now communicate with one another virtually.

That ability to communicate virtually seemed at first to be an unmitigated advance. We could communicate faster, more easily, with less friction, at our own convenience, to multiples of our previous audiences, with the click of a mouse or a “send” button.

Only recently have we started to realize that this huge social experiment has a downside, too. We’ve started to worry about shorter attention spans, and we wonder if the internet makes us stupid. But the real downside has remained largely invisible to us because it touches on the workings of our unconscious minds.

As we’ve made room for virtual communication in our lives, our workplaces, and in all the ways we connect with one another, we haven’t fully realized how emotionally emptyvirtual communications are. Every form of virtual communication strips out the emotional subtext of our communications to a greater or lesser extent. Every one.

Take email, for example. We’ve all experienced the frustration of sending an email that was (to us) obviously meant to be a joke. But the recipient, instead of being amused, was offended, and we had to spends huge amounts of time repairing the relationship. That’s the simplest, most obvious form of emotional undercutting that virtual communications foist on us.

Most of us have also spent hours on audioconferences at work, with the mute button in force, taking care of other business while people on the other end of the box drone on endlessly. We’ve had to lunge for that mute button when the boss suddenly says, “Nick, are you still on? What do you think of the new cross-eyed widget?”

And then there’s social media, which would seem to be all about emotional connection, but in fact is like Pringle’s potato chips; you need to keep eating them because one chip doesn’t satisfy. The bland taste creates a need for more but doesn’t allow you to stop. We get one like on Facebook, enjoy a brief hit of pleasure, and crave more. We get social love on Twitter and Instagram, and it’s just enough to keep us checking our mobile phones hundreds of times per day. In short, we’ve transferred a surprisingly large amount of our human interactions to the virtual world, and as a result, we no longer get the emotional information, support, and reinforcement we used to get without thinking about it while communicating face-to-face. 

Virtual relationships are more fragile and easily disrupted because they lack the unconscious connections our face-to-face interactions automatically convey. The lift of an eyebrow, the tone of a voice, a quick smile, a shake of the head—these are the ways we decode other people’s intents. These signals are largely absent from all forms of digital communication.

In business, this absence leads to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and a huge amount of do-overs, workarounds, and relationship repair. It’s expensive. It’s inefficient. And the cost in fractured relationships, missed opportunities, and lost connections is incalculable. Because we make decisions with our emotions, moreover, when we take them out of the communication, the audioconference, or the webinar, it becomes almost impossible to make good decisions when we’re immersed in the virtual stream.

In our personal lives, the same problems occur, especially when we’re trying to connect with someone at a distance, virtually. It’s expensive in many less quantifiable ways.

The result of this massive social experiment is a huge increase in loneliness, social isolation, fear of missing out (FOMO), and Instagram/Facebook envy, and, tragically, teenage depression and even suicide. We may be raising a generation of people who are unhappy communicating virtually and incompetent communicating face-to-face. Those of us with one foot in the face-to-face world and one foot in the virtual world are torn. We are invested in both, but we lack the time to master either world or feel completely at home in both.

InfoQ: What can be done to compensate for the effects of a lack of body language?

Morgan: What’s to be done? The experiment will continue. We can’t live without our gadgets. Too much of our personal and work lives today relies on the virtual. Indeed, most organizations with an international reach couldn’t function without the digital means of communication they use every day.

But we need to learn to live smarter and communicate differently to survive in this brave new digital world. We need to begin to consciously add the emotional subtext back into our virtual communications to avoid the costs—personal and financial—associated with miscommunication.

We can begin by accepting the less-than-perfect nature of virtual communication. Don’t try to make virtual communication into something it’s not or try to make it carry freight it can’t.Do the less important things via virtual meetings whenever possible. Save the emotional stuff for face-to-face meetings because it’s emotions and attitudes that are conveyed mostly through body language.

Second, schedule regular face-to-face meetings to reinvigorate your team. If you are kicking off something important, are celebrating a big win, or have significant issuesto discuss, bite the meeting bullet and bring everyone together. Trying to solve disagreements or rev people up via a digital phone line is pure folly and engineered disappointment. Our emotional investment in a phone call is simply less than in a face-to-face meeting, and the lack of visual and tonal information makes it much harder to get key messages across.

Third, never go longer than ten minutes in any format without some kind of break. The breaks will allow people to reengage. You can either stop the meeting entirely or just urge everyone to get up and stretch. People don’t need a long break, just a chance for a quick change of pace. Keep your text-based communications short, too.

Fourth, get regular group input.  What most people do during long phone meetings is put the phone on mute and take care of other chores while half-listening. You can keep the group involved by going around the phones asking for input. In a face-to-face meeting, you’re able to tell how people are doing by monitoring their body language. In a virtual meeting, you need to stop regularly to take everyone’s temperature. And I do mean everyone. Go right around the list, asking each locale or person for input.If you’re really gutsy, let people know they’ll be quizzed; research suggests they’ll remember more if you suggest that they’ll be asked about things after the meeting. 

Fifth. have a Master of (body language) Ceremonies, or MC.  The group can’t run itself without the virtual equivalent of body language. You need someone who’s in charge of making sure that each person talks and that everyone is engaged.

Sixth, identify your emotions verbally.  Lacking visual cues, we have a very hard time reading other people’s feelings, so make yours clear verbally and train other people on the call to do the same. Say, “I’m excited about everything we’re accomplishing!” Or, “Bob, I’m concerned that you don’t seem confident in the third quarter numbers. How are you really feeling about them?” You’ve got to put back in what the digital links are removing.

Seventh, use video to bring the group together. Face-to-face meetings allow a group to share emotions easily. Such sharing keeps them together and feeling connected.Sharing your emotions is much harder to do in a virtual meeting. So do the small talk—but make it video small talk. Get the group to send each other thirty-second or one-minute clips of what they’re up to or what the weather’s like where they are. Something personal really adds a sense of connection back to the group. Put some of that money you’re saving on travel to good technological use.It’s not a perfect solution, but it will help.

Finally, embrace the technology; don’t fight it. And don’t fight the last war.The virtual world we have created is not going away. We need to learn new ways to cope and behave in the virtual space. Just as we have to learn how to be savvy citizens of the “real” business world, now we need to learn the rules and tricks of the virtual business world.

InfoQ: What should effective virtual feedback look like?

Morgan: We need to learn to signal our intent, our emotion, and our attitude in other ways -- either by describing it out loud, say, on an audio conference, or by using emojis, in text communications, for example.  So basically, we need to find other ways to put the emotion back in.

Here are six rules for effective virtual feedback. 

First, virtual feedback should be appropriate to the effort, to the occasion, and to the recipient.  Tact is important, but so is honesty. 

Second, virtual feedback should be honest, but it doesn’t need to be cruel. Teachers and other early influencers often bear the responsibility of giving feedback to people aspiring to something that the teachers feel is unattainable.And for the most part, the influencers are doing the underachievers and the rest of the world a favor directing them into other lines of work.But occasionally, one of those no-hopers turns out to be a Twyla Tharp or a Picasso or a Steve Jobs. For all those future geniuses, it’s important to leaven clarity with kindness.

Third, virtual feedback should be both authoritative and humble. Again, for the future geniuses who have repeatedly proven the early critics wrong, those giving feedback should be aware of their own shortcomings as artists, business geniuses, or chess players themselves. 

Fourth, virtual feedback should be specific and focused on the relevant object, performance, or creation. If you perceive a work to be slapdash, say so, and explain how it falls short, but don’t conclude that the creator is lazy. A failed artistic performance doesn’t entitle you to judge the character of the performer. And general comments are far less useful—and far more damaging—than specific ones. 

Fifth, virtual feedback should never be more about the giver than the recipient. Go to a writer’s meet-up group, and you’ll hear mystery writers telling nonfiction writers that their work needs more suspense. Inevitably, feedback takes the form all too often of talking to oneself—the feedback really concerns what the giver knows at some deep level to be the problem with his or her own work. If you’re going to offer feedback, you have to have enough security, distance, and impartiality to deliver an opinion that is truly helpful. 

Finally, feedback should be offered in generosity and received in humility. Both giving and receiving feedback involve vulnerability and risk. The participants need to respect and honor each other. If the participants lack these qualities of generosity and humility, then the feedback process is generally either useless or destructive.

InfoQ: In a situation where we are unable to meet face-to-face, how can we build effective relationships online?

Morgan: We have to be very open, very clear about our intent, and very consistent.  Online, we tend to interpret inconsistency as a lack of trustworthiness, and so we cut people off who are inconsistent.  

The issue really is that the nature of trust in the virtual world has changed forever. Trust is much more fragile, though perhaps easier to establish initially. But the big difference comes when something threatens the trust. In face-to-face relationships where there is trust, one party may do something to screw up, causing friction, anger, and even a bit of mistrust to creep in. But if the connection is strong enough, the issue will get thrashed out, the perpetrator will apologize, and trust will be restored. Indeed, once restored, the trust may be stronger than ever.

How different the situation is in the virtual world! Once trust is threatened, it’s instantly broken, and it’s virtually impossible to reestablish it. People simply move on. Since trust was more fragile in the first place, it shatters with very little provocation.  

We must face the final virtual problem.  If the goal is to build effective relationships online, and if most of your relationships are virtual, the fragility of those relationships may make you less able to get through the bumps and shocks that every (face-to-face) relationship naturally endures. If you take the pattern of commitment from the virtual world, your understanding of the meaning of relationship will be attenuated and weak.

And these weaker ties will mean that you inhabit a more toxic world. The research shows that negative conversations stay with us longer than do positive ones because of how we metabolize oxytocin and cortisol differently.  How will we evolve as we move into a more and more virtual existence? Today, we still live in both worlds—face-to-face relationships and virtual ones. But how will we act in 2050?Or 2100? 

InfoQ: How can we create and maintain virtual places that feel safe for people to share issues and bring up any concerns that they have?

Morgan: We have to set up signal systems that make it easy for people to say how they are feeling.  A very simple example is to use a stoplight code on an audio conference, for instance, where green means “everything is good,” yellow means “I’ve got a little stress in my life now,” and red means “all hell is breaking loose!”  

We should begin by asking ourselves the question, “How did what I just said make the other person or the rest of the team feel?”  If you don’t know the answer to that question, you should ask it out loud to the rest of the people in the virtual room.  This has two good effects.  First of all, it offers people the chance to tell you how you affected them. Second, it shows them the respect that you care to hear the answer.  

Then think about being fully present with the people in the safe virtual place.That’s what it all boils down to. To connect with the other participants, you need to be both emotionally present and vulnerable. With people’s shorter attention spans and diminished tolerance for inauthentic behavior, you need to give others something real and to be ready to honestly share. If you fake it, they will know. And you will know.

But also be ready to laugh; remember, things are rarely a disaster of epic proportions, and it is the human condition to fail from time to time.

In the virtual safe place, don’t talk too much. Most people fill up the silences with their voices. They are afraid to stop, afraid to let the group go for an instant because people might stop listening, afraid to take a full emotional moment. But it’s those moments that make a human connection memorable.

And always talk about the journey, not the destination. If we’re a team—or trying to become one—we have to go on the same journey. We get inspiration from sharing moments of courage, of honesty, and of triumphing over failure. 

Be present by listening to the others as they speak; don’t plan your reply while they are speaking. There is so little real listening going on today that it is extraordinarily powerful when someone actually does us the courtesy of listening rather than thinking about what he or she is going to say. Try it.

Finally, build rapport in a virtual safe place by mirroring the other participants in your manner of speaking, your motions, and your expressions. This activity builds trust. Always listen and mirror first. People want to be heard—and seen.

InfoQ: You stated in the book that “you can't lead people over the telephone”. Can you elaborate?

Morgan: The telephone cuts out the emotional subtext of a conversation, so it’s much harder to hear when a leader is saying that something is very important, for example.  So it’s very difficult to lead over the phone (on a team weekly audio conference) without all the emotional clues about intent and attitude coming through.  

Your employees can’t tell how important you mean the things you say to be – they can’t figure out your implicit attitudinal hierarchy.  So they don’t understand what you want them to do, or how seriously to take what you’re saying.  

InfoQ: What can be done to make conference calls and video conferencing more effective?

Morgan: Here are a few other suggestions: put some life into your voice.  It helps many people to have an actual person to talk to in the room with them. You’re less likely to drift into a lifeless monotone if you are speaking to someone in person. Having someone in the room with you helps keep the tone conversational and provides variety in your voice, as you naturally do when speaking with someone in person. Standing up helps, too; you’re less likely to let your voice drift into a deadly monotone.

Second, put someone (else) in charge.  If you’ve got people who are designated speakers, don’t expect them also to run the conference.The result will be well worth the extra effort involved in having someone to monitor problems, field questions, provide a road map, and so on. An MC should always think of himself or herself as the representative of the audience, asking questions that a reasonable person might wonder about. The MC should also summarize, follow up, coordinate, add in, and generally clean up the conversation as it unfolds. Done well, it’s an active role that can transform an audioconference of this ilk into one that is tight, memorable, and well run. The MC might also get into the habit of posting an agenda on a website or some other accessible place for potential participants to peruse ahead of time—and to use as a scorecard along the way during the call.

Third, put a limit on the formal remarks. Attention spans have apparently shrunk to ten minutes these days.So never go longer than ten minutes with one person’s remarks without pausing for questions and comments. And take some questions as you go if there are several speakers. You can come back at the end for a general free-for-all, but do take questions after each speaker, unless you’re trying hard to bury something the first speaker is going to say.

Fourth, circulate an agenda in advance, if the MC hasn’t, and appoint someone to take notes and send them out to all parties afterward. The agenda will allow participants to pace themselves. The follow-up will give everyone a chance to add and subtract things that are important; it will also provide an important reminder for anything that was agreed on.

Fifth, take on or appoint the role of active listener. This is good meeting hygiene in any situation, but it’s particularly important on a conference call. An active listener repeats back (usually in a shorter, but not a reductive, way) what he or she has heard and gets confirmation that the impression was accurate. 

InfoQ: What mixture of tools and practices do you suggest for communication in distributed teams?

Morgan: You need to use the whole toolbox -- video conferencing, audio, and text-based systems.  You need to keep track of how much everyone participates and to have private channels of communication with each person on the team in order to check in individually when necessary.  And you need to get together face-to-face on a regular basis to restore group trust and cohesion. 

InfoQ: What makes it so important to be intentional about emotion in the virtual world and how can we do that?

Morgan: Intent doesn’t come through clearly virtually, so you need to add that back in, either through words, emojis, or other means.  

In the old, face-to-face world, we could afford to be lazy about our communications, relying on our unconscious minds to do most of the work. In the new world, we have to be intentional about our emotions. Now, we realize how hard it is to get it right, to deliver emotions with sensitivity, to communicate precisely what’s needed. We’re becoming more aware of how complicated those relations always were. But in the virtual world, we have to learn to become completely clear about our intentions so that others can know them and not misunderstand them.  The virtual world has also greatly speeded up our communications, and with the increase in speed and volume, we can’t afford to have many misunderstandings. The result would be virtual chaos. So we need to learn how to manage the clarity of our intentions virtually.  

About the Book Author

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists and coaches. A passionate teacher, he is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas – and then delivering them with panache. He has himself spoken, led conferences, and moderated panels at venues around the world.  

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