In this article I explore how people tend to think and behave more positively when engaged in face-to-face conversations.
Have you ever tried to discuss an issue with your colleagues or clients but didn’t think it was necessary to be in the same room for this? You decided to talk over the phone or the internet, perhaps via email, online chat or video conferencing, but despite your best efforts to articulate your points clearly you couldn’t fully understand each other. The distance between you was not only physical; your opinions and perspectives also remained far apart.
We all know that meeting someone face to face can be a very different experience. When you see people in the flesh, you can often sense a more tangible connection, express yourself more freely and get your messages across more effectively.
Telecommunication can be appealing
However, there are many possible and valid reasons why you might be inclined to discuss an issue through digital technology.
Arranging a face-to-face meeting can be quite a quest. You need to find a time that works for everyone, along with a suitable and available meeting space – a constant challenge in the modern workplace. Some participants might need to travel, which means additional costs and time.
You might also find it more convenient to communicate via digital media when the documents you need to use or share are already in the system, easily accessible on your devices. Email, chat and video-conferencing platforms are also handy if you want to keep a record of your conversations.
Or maybe you just feel you’re better at writing than talking. Writing allows you to carefully formulate your message and thus to present your points most logically and compellingly. Written communication also gives recipients the opportunity to reply at a time that suits them, think through their responses first, and obtain additional information if needed.
Furthermore, staying behind the keyboard can feel like a safe option when you’re planning to discuss sensitive issues and want to avoid direct confrontation.
So what should you do?
Is it worth the effort to physically get together with your teams and clients to talk through certain issues, or is it more practical to communicate with them through digital means?
The best approach of course depends on your particular situation. In certain circumstances it’s extremely beneficial, and maybe even necessary, to meet people face to face. At other times it makes more sense to discuss things online or over the phone.
But before jumping to conclusions, let’s explore a bit more in depth how we think and behave differently when we meet people in person, compared to when we connect with them remotely.
When we learn about people’s opinions only through the written word, especially if we don’t quite agree with their views, studies have shown that we have a greater tendency to stereotype them and see their arguments as unreasonable. In contrast, when we can see or hear these people talking, we tend to form more objective first impressions, and consider their arguments more thoughtfully.
Furthermore, if we already have some preconceptions about somebody, and then only communicate with them in writing, chances are that our interpretations of their messages will only reinforce that probably not-so-accurate picture in our heads.
So when you catch yourself unintentionally starting to label or pigeonhole someone, or sense that a person you’re working with might have misconceptions about you, connecting with them over a phone or video call is a better choice then emailing or messaging. However, based on my experience, meeting them face to face can make it even easier for you to see each other for who you really are.
Have you noticed how quickly people can become detached when communicating remotely? We can see a sad manifestation of this tendency on social media. Some folks seemingly forget that the opinions they read are actually coming from thinking and feeling human beings. In their responses, they say things they wouldn’t say and use words they wouldn’t use if they were talking to a person in front of them.
Of course you’re nothing like these keyboard warriors. However, communicating with others from a distance still influences how you judge and relate to them. You’ve probably recognised that you’re a bit more curious about people when you get the chance to physically catch up. And even when you seem to disagree about something, you are more interested in their perspectives and experiences as well as more considerate and kind, thus more successful at finding common ground.
As you’re engaging with a person sitting in front of you, you can pick up subtle non-verbal cues from their voice and body language that today’s telecommunication systems are unable to transmit. These might be, for example, a tiny twitch of an eyebrow, a slight rasp in the voice, a tiny change of colour of the skin, or the lift of the chest during a deep breath.
You don’t need to be an expert in non-verbal communication to make sense of many of these signals. These cues can guide your intuition, and even though unconsciously, can help you understand the other person’s thought processes and emotions.
I’m sure you know the feeling when you try to describe an idea but language seems so limiting. Well, the person in front of you might not speak most articulately, but seeing into their mind a little will help you get a better grasp of what they are trying to tell you.
It always takes courage to talk about something you care deeply about when you feel uncertain about how others might react. But if you open yourself up, say, during an online chat or a phone or conference call, you put yourself in a particularly vulnerable position.
Conveying emotionally charged messages can be especially difficult using technology. Unless people are able to see and hear you very clearly, they could easily misunderstand your thoughts or intentions, which could lead to conflict. Or worse, the response could be dead silence.
We can therefore feel somewhat cautious and contrived in remote conversations. Staring at a screen or a camera doesn’t make it any easier to expose our thoughts.
On the flip-side, face-to-face interactions leave less room for ambiguity. We’re also able to ask questions in real time and get instant answers and feedback. These are some of the reasons why we tend to act more naturally and express ourselves more honestly, and have more real, genuine conversations.
Do you sometimes multitask during phone calls or conference calls while no-one can see what you’re doing? Perhaps you’re getting some important work done. Or you’re browsing through your mailbox, checking the latest news or dipping into social media.
Most of us are guilty to some extent. Even if you believe that you’re capable of focusing on several things at once, these conversations always suffer.
You must know what it’s like when you’re trying to carefully explain something to your team and you just sense that others are not really paying attention. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and you won’t see the discussion moving forward either.
On the other hand, people tend to be more present when sitting down with you. They might still check their phones a few times or get lost in their thoughts, but listen more closely to what you’re saying, partly because they face fewer distractions, and partly due to common courtesy.
But why is it so hard to focus while connecting with others through technology?
Part of the problem is that verbal communication is inherently slow, whereas the digital world puts us in a headspace where we expect things to happen very quickly. Technology allows us to access and browse through large volumes of information almost instantaneously. We might have dozens of windows and tabs open on our device (or multiple devices), and can switch between them in a split second.
Much of the content on the internet is tailored to a short attention span, which only perpetuates the problem. Therefore, when we engage with each other through digital media, we’re inclined to disperse our attention and to think fast.
Sitting down with someone, perhaps over a coffee, puts us in a different frame of mind. We slow down a fair bit and find the patience to explore subjects in detail and to learn from and about each other in greater depth.
Before you go
For a moment, just picture yourself speaking with your teams or clients in person. You know that they are listening to you fairly objectively, and with consideration and empathy. They are open to sharing their thoughts, and are also more present and patient compared to when you communicate via digital technologies.
If you’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to discuss disruptive ideas, complex problems, personal and potentially emotional experiences, or honest thoughts and opinions about delicate subjects, well, this is the time.
In my next article I will explain specific situations when getting together with your teams or clients is highly beneficial.