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The following article, second in a series, was written by Full Cadence Consulting’s Natalie Bradshaw, who teaches professionals to improve communication and amplify their message by using brain science.

John (his name has been changed for privacy), a marketing professional for a design firm, dislikes talking on the phone. He reports increased social awkwardness on calls as well as decreased communicative performance, characterized by the frequent use of filler words (e.g., um, like), speech disfluencies (e.g., word repetitions and elongations), and stilted conversation. As a result, John uses email as a default mode of communication for almost all of his external exchanges.

Jane (her name has been changed for privacy), a principal at an engineering firm, manages a large team of employees. She’s noticed that most of her team members rarely turn on their cameras during virtual meetings. Some even refuse when asked. Jane has also noted a decrease in participation and an increase in miscommunication during these
meetings.

Traits such as social reticence and awkwardness are sometimes seen in people in highly technical fields like design. Most firms just brush off these traits as “normal,” determined to work around them. However, many foundational aspects of social cognition are skill based (e.g., pragmatic skills, emotional awareness) and benefit from practice. Therefore, actively engaging in social settings can help us become more effective communicators.

While strong communication skills have always been important for businesses, they’re essential now. The work-from-home revolution has made virtual communication integral to corporate infrastructure.

Virtual communication exacerbates social difficulties due to cognitive processing. Our wires get crossed in virtual settings because we’re getting mixed signals. Instead of facing this discomfort, most people choose to ignore it, creating “virtual silos.” They turn off their cameras during meetings. They send emails or texts instead of making phone calls. They never interact with other departments via small talk. While we can get away with this approach for a while, silos eventually backfire due to specific negative outcomes.

Perceived isolation
Perceived isolation has been linked to many negative health consequences. It contributes to decreases in overall cognitive performance, particularly in the brain areas associated with higher level problem-solving function. While this would be problematic on its own, the real picture is even more complex. Perceived isolation can make people more likely to assume that others are attacking them and see threats that aren’t intended.

This combination means people are more likely to see negative intentions in others and more likely to respond negatively, resulting in decreased social cohesion, which further reinforces perceived isolation. This can lead to missed opportunities for mentoring, networking, relationship-building, and training.

The consequences of miscommunication might include ineffective delegation, missed deadlines, unmet expectations, scope creep, and increased liability.

Increased miscommunication
Non-verbal communication, such as body language, gesture, and tone of voice, convey critical message components in conversation. If our non-verbal communication is either distorted (through a poor internet connection) or absent (due to a camera being off), then our conversational partner has to fill in the missing information by making assumptions or guessing. When we participate in these behaviors, miscommunication can become rampant.

The consequences of miscommunication might include ineffective delegation, missed deadlines, unmet expectations, scope creep, and increased liability. But no matter which form of miscommunication we’re talking about; the result is always time lost. And time lost matters, particularly for design professionals. Every minute you spend “putting out fires” is a minute you’re not making money or investing in future work.

Negativity spiral
Emotions are experiential, meaning we don’t just think them, we feel them. As a result, we often interpret emotions as internal facts, whereas we treat incoming information more like a theory that our rational mind needs to decide whether or not to agree with.

The brain also has an innate negativity bias where we assign greater importance to negative events than positive ones. Negative events create stressful interpersonal exchanges in the workplace and lead to negative relationships. It’s this idea that stands behind the popular saying, “Employees don’t quit their job, they quit their boss.” But it doesn’t stop with employees. In a world where brand loyalty is becoming rare, client experience matters. Nothing kills client experience faster than miscommunication, unmet expectations, and/or litigation. No one can afford to lose clients or key talent during times of economic uncertainty.

What to do about it
We don’t have to resign ourselves to these outcomes. Instead, we can take a proactive approach simply by adapting our communication style. We can consciously “read the room” by applying situational intelligence explicitly, instead of merely relying on instincts. We just need to remind ourselves to do it.

Here’s one way to start. First, we need to think about what the situation would be like in person and then we need to identify which components of the in-person setting are shared in a virtual setting. Then we can plan what we want to happen and talk ourselves through how we are going to do it.

The big takeaway
Social reticence and awkwardness are exacerbated by virtual communication because of cognitive processing. If left unchecked, these can lead to negative outcomes including miscommunication, decreased engagement, and negative client experiences. However, we can ameliorate these outcomes with a little elbow grease. By deliberately using our situational intelligence, we can translate “in-person communication codes” into “virtual communication codes.” Don’t let a lack of training hold you back.

In part 3 of this series, we’ll explore the persuasive side of virtual communication. We’ll discuss how virtual formats impact negotiations and the tools we can use to gain a competitive advantage.

You can learn more about what Full Cadence Consulting offers by visiting fullcadenceconsulting.com.

 

Sources

1. Kar, N. and Kar, B. (2017). Social cognition and individual effectiveness in interpersonal scenarios: A conceptual review. Journal of Mental Health and Human Behavior, 22 (1), 27–34.
2. Cacioppo, J. T., and Hawkley, L. C. (2009). Trends in cognitive sciences, 13 (10), 447–454.
3. Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., and Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134 (3), 383–403.

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