We cannot hide behind the keyboard and the screen; we are still in plain sight – our style, our savvy, and our smile are right there with us. Our communication skills are definitely showing. It’s a virtual presence, surely, yet it still reveals a lot about us. The remote is not really so remote when we take a look at its intimate truths. Here are some of the truths that are revealed between the keys – about how we use time, how we listen, and how much, in general, we care.
How we use time
There is a nonverbal communication theoretical term called “chronemics” which is basically the study of how we use time and what that reveals about us. Our behavior at meetings, for example, has always been an indicator of how a person, an organization, even a culture – uses time. These habits are most often not written down. Attendees figure it out. They can be late…or not. They can leave early…or not. Their slides can be complete…or not. The same thing occurs in virtual meetings. Bad habits can easily develop, especially when there are so many meetings in a day. But we can avoid getting trapped in bad habits if we think through a few positive steps. For example:
- Be aware of when we arrive and leave a meeting. The leader and other participants will often notice and if we arrive late and leave early consistently, we are sending a message that
- something else is more important.
- Plan our own presentations in advance so participants are watching a smooth, put-together report that doesn’t meander or waste their time with “and- uhm’s” and “you know’s.”
- Plan ahead for the questions we’ll probably get so we look smart and savvy and avoid saying “Good question,” after everything – a habit that’s all too common.
- Prepare by having conversations with key players one on one ahead of the meeting. Make sure someone is in charge of the agenda and how to prioritize it.
- Take no more time than we say we will. Very rarely do meeting attendees want our report to go longer.
- Do not overly refer to time. “I will go through this quickly,” or “I’m about done. I know you all have a lot more to cover,” actually devalues our presentation.
How we listen
There is a conversational occurrence that theorists call “turn taking.” In essence, it refers to the mostly nonverbal cues that let the other person know we are either finished or not finished making our point. In an online environment it is especially important to listen for the meanings of messages. It’s harder to tell when someone else is done speaking in gallery view. But good turn taking and listening habits can be developed virtually as well, for example:
Say someone’s name first – as we seek a turn. For example, “Pat, if I’m interrupting, I apologize.” or “ Joe, I hear what you’re saying and…”
- Be sure we’re not dominating every conversation. This stands out even more when the rest of the participants are with us in tiny square boxes on the screen.
- Use the chat box constructively. It’s distracting when someone is trying hard to lead the meeting and we all can see any off-track comments that distract us.
- Begin a discussion board response with an agreement or a paraphrase – both indicative of true listening that shows respect and kindness.
- Practice the active listener’s skills of tuning in to both the facts and the feelings that can be detected in the tone of others’ responses as well as our own. It’s basically an attention to the mood of the conversation and a respect for opinions that differ. “Celia, it sounds like you feel…”or “ Michael, I hear some hesitation.”
- Avoid multi-tasking. Research continues to prove we’re not very good at it. And it almost inevitably prohibits active listening.
How we care
We tend to make specific communication choices when we want to be seen favorably. The communication theorist may relate to those choices as “impression management.” As a graduate student I was quite intrigued by the theory of “initial interaction,” which, in essence, is just what it says – how we judge each other upon first meetings (initially interacting) – and how that changes over time. The theory taught that “first impressions are fast.” What I learned in graduate school applies in today’s virtual environment. Every time we communicate with our keyboard and screen, we send messages about caring and respect. We can learn to practice some simple actions that do so. For example, we can:
- Be thoughtful with our email timing and language. An email is often how we are “introduced” to someone who can help or propel us forward. An email can be bad news that needs to find the right tone. Or it can be an everyday type of missive that simply appreciates.
- Declutter our backgrounds. Think about it. Today when we’re watching our favorite newscaster or celebrity report from their homes, aren’t we looking at the background first? Most people can designate an area that is clean, clear, and professional.
- Be aware of what’s at our neckline. Necklines are especially important as they can add to a savvy look or subtract from it. Sweats, hoodies and caps send an air of casual vs. caring.
- Consider our meeting follow up email as we would any professional letter. The greeting and closing say a lot about our savvy and our respect for the receiver.
How we use time, how we listen, and how we care are simply three communication habits that I’ve noticed are showing in myself, my clients, and my students in today’s work and life. For all of us, our virtual presence is showing – now more than ever. And it’s ours to maintain or change as each day unfolds.
©2020 Cyndi Maxey