The digital era has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with one another. Devices have helped boost our productivity, performance, and creativity in many ways. It has also helped to connect us globally. With email, instant messenger applications, texting, remote teams and social media, we have endless options for how to connect with anyone, stranger or friend, across the world. Customer relationships have become digital; businesses are now largely digital; our conversations, interactions, and relationships have also become that way. As such, technology has a major impact on how we communicate, how often we communicate, and how interconnected we are as a species.
At the same time however, there is mounting research that shows technology is negatively affecting our communication even though we may be communicating more frequently, and relatively easily, than ever before. Due to this expansion in technology, many of us are concerned that we are too immersed in the digital form of communication and perhaps losing the skills to communicate effectively face-face: the art of communication.
It is very easy to forget that sometimes we are still face-to-face. It’s easy to forget how to communicate effectively, how to continue to talk. In a time when technology is taking over how we speak and interact, how do we keep the essence of communication alive?
To address this question, it’s important to understand what it is about digital communication that differs from face-face communication. A 2013 study by Martha Munoz showed that computer usage is devoid of the nonverbal and environmental cues that we as humans rely on to make meaning of words – cues that are present in face-to-face communication. We know from years of research on communication that many of our patterns and meaning making is reliant on nonverbal cues. Munoz’s research found that as a result of the increase in usage of digital communication, those who engage more frequently in this form of communication as opposed to face-to-face were less socially skillful than those who preferred face-to-face interactions (Munoz, 20131).
There is also something to be said about being present with another, occupying the same space. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to garner positive responses than emails. Despite this, most people still believe that an ask over email or another form of instant messaging will reap more effective results.
The question becomes, what is most important? Do we value results, or do we value relationships? Does one cost us the other? Can we foster both?
There are three key elements to every interaction: tone, body language, and words. It could be argued that a good portion of these elements are lacking with the increased use of technology as our primary method of communication.
Within a business setting, where we may communicate for a variety of reasons, some of those may be to exchange ideas, share information and results, and gather feedback. With this article, we hope to demonstrate different techniques that can be used to leverage the use of technology while also building on our capability to interact effectively through tone, body language, and words.
So, what are the main methods we use to communicate in today’s workplace?
Instant messenger apps
a. Pros: Instant gratification, immediate answers, quick action.
b. Cons: Loss of tone and body language, unrealistic expectations for response time, lack of presence if one is otherwise occupied (in another meeting) when responding immediately, potential resentment if the response is not deemed quick enough.
c. Notes: Use this format to share the basics of an important idea, update, or information, however be sure to follow up with a phone call to ensure that the message has been well communicated by both parties. This may be more time consuming initially, however our experience and research shows that in the long run, this method will actually save time, and potentially avoid miscommunication and conflict. Conflict and/or serious topics should never be communicated by any of these methods. When tone and body language are removed, sensitive topics can escalate quickly, hence damaging relationships and causing more conflict.
d. Pros: Tone, body language, and words all come together, great for remote teams, can be used for groups or one-on-one.
e. Cons: Necessary technology platforms, potential connectivity issues.
f. Notes: Virtual video meetings are becoming more popular with globalization. They are being used now more than ever as remote teams and teleworking have become commonplace. Video meetings are a great way to simulate an actual meeting room for either group/team or one-on-one meetings. This is the only non-face-to-face interaction vehicle that allows tone, body language, and the words to come together. When meeting via video, key fundamentals of interactions such as eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, and engagement in the conversation are preserved. When face-to-face (or even virtual), rather than using the time solely to rattle off a list of tasks, updates, and assignments, use the time to discuss relationships and how you keep one another informed. Set a clear agenda that is shared in advance of the meeting. This allows people to truly reflect on what they’d like to share, and the impact/results they would like to get from sharing this information. It also allows for a richer context, depth of conversation, and a more effective and dynamic relationship moving forward. Always be sure to set up cameras properly. How many times have you been on a video call where the other person is in a very poorly lit room, their voice is barely distinguishable, and their camera is blurry? Or maybe you are that person! To foster better communication virtually it is critical to set up your camera and space in a way that invites conversation and dialogue, and in a way that is not distracting.
Communication-based tools and platforms
a) Pros: Builds relationships, promotes healthy morale, creates mutually respectful working relationships.
b) Cons: Potential lack of consistent usage.
c) Notes: There is an emerging market of communication-based tools that use assessments to set priorities within the relationship and establish the best way to connect. Each relationship is unique, people have different preferences, and each can be customized to maximize outcomes. Similarly, there are tools that evaluate how an individual’s message delivery, measuring tone, nonverbals, and spoken words. These types of tools can empower individuals and team managers to develop their communication skills and make big improvements to their delivery and communication tactics in short periods of time. These tools tend to be more immediate in their evaluation of individual strengths, developmental areas, and preferences, and are less susceptible to human subjectivity and biases.
So, in a world of technology, how do we continue to talk?
There are many benefits in the emergence of digital technologies and social media that boost our ability to communicate with one another. It can even be argued that we are now better off than ever before in terms of our ability to connect more frequently and effectively. The difference, however, is in the way we leverage the technology that exists to make the most of our communication styles and delivery. By incorporating small changes in the way we utilize technology, using it more strategically and purposefully, like the tips above have suggested, individuals and teams can ensure that they are getting the most from technology and using it to its fullest potential. Rather than shy away from it, it is important to embrace technology if we are to continue to talk to one another in the best way possible in the modern world.
1: Munoz, M., (2013). Preference for online communication and its effect on perceived social skills and academic performance (Master’s thesis). Available from Online Computer Library Center, Inc. database. (UMI No. 858587514)