This week’s article is provided by Erica Dhawan as part of the World Business and Executive Coach Summit (WBECS) interview series. It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection that aired on Tuesday, May 18th.
No traditional expert in body language could have predicted that today our communication would be nearly entirely digital. Modern communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is our digital body language. When the internet came along, everyone was given a dais and a microphone, but no one was told how to use them. We all just picked things up as we went along. And the mistakes we’ve made along the way have had real consequences in business.
Misunderstandings are rampant in today’s workplaces. And while poor communication habits may feel inevitable with colleagues, it can often come at the cost of a team’s potential to succeed. Each of us has different expectations and instincts about whether we should send a text versus an email, when to call someone, how long to wait before we write someone back, and how to write a digital thank you or apology without seeming insincere. These seemingly small choices create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace (not to mention in our personal lives). Most of today’s boardrooms, workplaces, and classrooms minimize the conditions necessary to foster and augment clear communication, leading to widespread distrust, resentment, and frustration. There are more far-flung teams. There are fewer face-to-face interactions. There is virtually no body language to read (even today’s video meetings are scarce of eye contact or hand gestures).
But how can we stay connected when a screen divides us?
The answer lies in understanding the cues and signals that we are sending with our digital body language, and learning to tailor them to create clear, precise messages. Everything from our punctuation to our response times to our video backgrounds in a video call make up signals of trust, respect, and even confidence in our modern world.
By embedding a real understanding of digital body language into your workplace, communication processes can provide both the structure and the tools that support a silo-breaking, trust-filled environment. Here are some strategies from my new book Digital Body Language:
The Medium is the Message
All communication channels are not created equal. Knowing how and when to use each one depends on the context. Every channel brings with it a set of underlying meanings and subtexts, and knowing how to navigate this array of hidden meanings is a telltale mark of digital savviness and––ultimately––professionalism. If you’re stuck, ask yourself: how important or urgent is your message? And to whom are you communicating? If so, what’s better––email, Slack, the phone, or a text?
Punctuation is the New Measure of Emotion
In our digital world, our screens filter out the non-verbal signals and cues that makeup 60 to 80 percent of face-to-face communication, forcing us to adapt the emotional logic of computers. We’re rendered cue-less.
By way of compensation, our communication style relies on punctuation for impact. In an effort to infuse our texts with tone and to clarify our feelings, we might use exclamation marks, capital letters, or ellipses, or else hit the “Like” or “Love” button on messages we receive. But instead of clarity, sometimes our reliance on punctuation and symbols can generate more confusion.
My advice when it comes to punctuation and symbols: use them judiciously.
Timing is the New Measure of Respect
Face-to-face interactions require that both parties be available at the same time. This is less possible today, with most of us scrambling to keep up with our various inboxes.
This often means that communication happens at a slower pace. And in a digitally-reliant world, the slightest pause between messages takes on an almost operatic meaning.
The thing is, most of the time a non-answer means nothing at all; the other person is simply tied up, doing something else, didn’t notice she’d gotten a text, had her volume turned off, or forgot where she put her phone.
If you’re worried about your digital tone, one way to clarify your feelings digitally is through the direct, easy-to-understand language of emojis. While emojis may be a learning curve for some, they can be critical to enhancing workplace efficiency and cultivating a corporate culture of optimal clarity.
A phone call is worth a thousand emails
With so many written platforms at our disposal, we can also get caught up in asking too many questions in email or group chat. Phone, video, or live meetings safeguard us from asking one tiny question after the next, instead requiring us to formulate the right questions. If you just received a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid to ask to request a phone conversation or, if possible, a video or in-person meeting.
If it’s a sensitive dialogue, requesting a quick call shows you’re being thoughtful. Instead of making you look indecisive, waiting for a few beats before responding to questions shows the other person that you are listening and taking your work seriously.
With hardly any face-to-face interactions with colleagues or classmates these days, there is virtually no body language to read. Understanding digital body language is essential for those of us who are committed to making strong relationships and making a mark, even in the swell of conference calls, emails, texts, and Zoom engagements. Not only can it enhance your interpersonal interactions and liberate you from the fear and worry that digital communication inspires but it can give you a competitive advantage on your team grounded in transparency and empathy.
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, iHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Author
Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st-century teamwork and communication. She is an award-winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on Linkedin.