Communicating at a distance

How we love to boast of our online existence. And of our deftness in conducting business remotely. Look at us, people of the 21st century, our fingers flying over keyboards, our thumbs hammering away at touchscreens! So cyber.

But digital communication is notoriously tricky. It removes some of the inhibitions we feel when meeting face to face – for good or bad. Its form can be quite informal, even when the content is deadly serious.

image: South West News Service (SWNS), The Sun

The Age of COVID-19 throws these difficulties into sharp relief. In May, I talked to members of the Dutch Tech hub THT about the challenges of communication in lockdown: how to e-mail, chat, and video call with less stress and more result. With the infection count going up, I thought these pointers might be useful again in the near future.

Skip ahead if you don’t want to read the whole thing:

timesimplifyeditset boundariesstructurelistenchoose

Want to know more? Check out my course on digital communication, or send me an e-mail.

time

Time is the factor that improves any and all communication. Time to carefully consider your proposal to an important client. Time to process the emotions triggered by an e-mail from your high-strung manager (irritation, fatigue, surprise, exasperation…). Time to dump those emotions into a first draft answer, edit them out again, and check the recipients before you press ‘send’.

Time to prepare a video presentation for your clients; to prepare the point you want to get across in the company-wide meeting on Monday. Time to write down all of your ideas, and then pick the best one. Time to think about the different routes you could take, to convince your colleagues of that idea. Time to request and process feedback. What do people recall from your presentation? How was that e-mail perceived?

Time is distance, and distance helps to see things in a different light. Some problems disappear, some become much smaller. Many things become less complicated with more time. Time is distance, and thus time makes space. Space for new ideas to pop up. Space to settle, space to breathe. Space for the essential to rise up from all the details clamoring for your attention.

And time is precisely the luxury we often cannot afford. Our screens are hungry for our time.

image: PBS

When I open a browser, time appears to speed up. I enter my inbox and suddenly, half of the day is gone. The half an hour Zoom meeting runs to an hour, and still people are talking. No matter how hard I try, there is never time enough. Often time seems more fluid than lineair, resisting my efforts to regiment it: the harder I plan and push my activities into little blocks of time, the more it appears to spill over the edges, into my play time and sleep time and chill time…

So how do I find time? By treating it like a precious commodity. And by giving myself permission to choose what to spend it on.

simplify

It is hard to be present in two places at the same time. This very much applies to communication. People quickly sense when you are not entirely present in a conversation, for whatever reason. They might start repeating themselves, become more loud or insistent, to get your full attention. This can lead to inefficiency, irritation, arguments.

Multitasking is an illusion. When you think you are doing many things at the same time, your brain actually switches between one task and the other. Back and forth, back and forth, so rapidly it gives you the feeling of simultaneousness. And the idea that you can do more more more. Videoconferencing, a chat on the side, ticking off some e-mails, messaging with the spouse and some friends.

The switching ability of our brains is awesome. But it comes at a price: it costs energy, it nibbles away at our concentration and wellbeing. The end result can be less than optimal, spending rather than saving time. Sloppiness may give rise to misunderstandings, which in turn take time to correct.

I often end up second-guessing myself. When my head finally hits the pillow after a day of hardcore multitasking, my overstimulated brain starts churning out doubts: did I mention that, or did I forget? Did I phrase that correctly? Did I copy her in?

One way to combat the lure of multitasking, is to simplify our communication. Limiting the number of apps, communication channels, screens, people per meeting, people to meet with, the number of side-chats. If the discussion on the work app is heating up and there is no end in sight, ignore it for a while. If the e-mails come in so thick and fast they give you hives, remove the e-mail app from your phone, and only look at e-mail on your computer. If your eyes are tired and you have trouble focusing on the meeting, try turning off the image and listening to the sound with your eyes closed.

Go on. You know you want to.

image: greater rhea with eyes closed, photographer Vincent Lamy, Wikimedia commons

edit

I make a point of asking my clients what type of request they respond to quickly; what type of meeting leaves them satisfied. And, reversely, what type of messages they ignore; why they avoided that in-company training day. I have yet to meet people who love to read long e-mails with long bullet lists, or fat attachments. Who love to attend meandering presentations with crowded slides.

image: United States Military, European Command Headquarters, courtesy of the heroes of the Internet Archive

My conclusion so far: many people do not like the feeling of their time being wasted.

I am not one for communication models and rules, but here is one rule I do believe in: less is more. Invest time to edit; it will save you time in the end. By editing I mean paring down your written communication to the core; preparing the essential points you want to make in your verbal communication.

What is the effect of a concise and simple request; of a short and sweet presentation? There are many ways to experiment with this. Try to limit the amount of requests in your e-mails to one (1). Read a draft e-mail out loud to yourself. When you get bored, or stumble, you have proof it is too long. In your presentation, video or podcast, focus on one (1) central message, and your three (3) best examples. Rehearse your presentation a couple of times. Use a timer, as a reality check; if you run too long, take stuff out. (Start with the sentences your tongue trips over.)

Confession time: I fall into the trap of multitasking quite easily, because I am bored quite quickly. Editing whatever I send or say is one way of catering to that boredom. And I learned to do it the hard way: I am a natural born e-mail-chainer, copy-inner, attacher, list-maker, PPPS-er, detail-obsessive, completeness-fetishist.

set boundaries

Among friends, I love to pick up a joke from last time we met, carry it over into a message chat; refer to it in an e-mail. Pinging oblique references and cryptic emojis back and forth on different channels emphasises our closeness. But in a professional setting, conducting discussions on different channels will rapidly bring confusion, especially with multiple participants: are we doing this here, now? Did you guys decide this already? I thought we were discussing this at the next meeting? Why was I not copied in? It can help to explicitly set boundaries on content and on participants: we discuss this here and now, with these people.

Those different channels congregate on our phones and laptops, they flow into each other and into our free time. This is sure to wear us out. Again, this is about treating your time as the precious commodity that it is. Limit time to make time.

Pick a timeslot for each communication channel. Or even a set day, if you can afford it. When do you answer your e-mails; when are you available in the chat; and for how long. Clearly communicate those time limits to others. Include an e-mail signature with the times you are available. Announce the time you will leave the chat or call, right at the beginning. If you have a hard time sticking to it, help yourself remember this promise to yourself: set a timer.

image: Soviet wrist watch ‘Elektronika 5’, 1989, Soviet Visuals

You might be surprised how quickly people adapt to your limited availability. That is because time boundaries are kind on yourself as well as others. People will come to the point more quickly when time is limited. They will not feel obliged to fill up space with small talk. Most people want to get on with their day, just like you do. With a proliferation of digital communication channels, it also helps people to know that they can find you on a certain channel at a certain time.

structure

It can be quite daunting to speak into the silence of a group video call, looking only at the face of the chair and maybe two colleagues, while the rest of your audience is not visible, and of unknown size. Facial expressions and body language are harder to read. How do you know if there are questions, or if it is time to shut up? Is anyone even listening?

The proper format for an effective video meeting depends on its context. With three people, a freewheeling meeting can free up creativity. Especially if you keep it short, to preserve freshness and prevent a descent into polite fatigue. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the mega-meetings with dozens of participants. Enter echoes; pixels; bad connections; people popping into the frame when they cough; pets and kids interfering; people working on other screens or looking at themselves while they are ‘listening’ to you.

image: still from Falco, Junge Roemer

The larger the group, the greater the need for structure. A clear agenda, communicated to all participants beforehand; or at the beginning of the meeting, very briefly. A clear separation between the activity of raising issues, and the activity of discussing them. Sidechat yes or no, what for (to gather questions), and what not for (gossip). Screens on or off; mics on or off. Time boundaries. For the meeting itself, but also for speaking turns, and for the treatment of each issue on the agenda. And, most crucially, a strict and fair chairwo/man. Someone who keeps the time. Someone who makes sure all issues are discussed and everybody gets their turn. Someone who helps both the loquacious and the reticent, by asking questions, structuring a flood of words, or drawing answers out.

The success of such a meeting depends on a commitment to its structure. The chair does not have to bear this weight alone. The participants, too, are responsible. A participant will want to know what the meeting is (not) about, and why; what will be discussed when; what is expected of everyone; if s/he will get a turn to speak, or not. If those things are clear, participants will quite naturally help the chair to uphold the meeting structure. Even when the relationships between participants are formal.

image:  still from The Muppets video call,  Disney +

listen

Communicating at a distance has benefits, too. Full disclosure: I hated skyping from the get-go and avoided it succesfully for a great many years. […] Being forced to see my clients and colleagues through the lens of my laptop has made me a better listener. In the first weeks of the lockdown, I was incredibly frustrated by the laggy, stilted character of video conversation. A day of such conversations left me feeling like a dried-up husk. Unable to read the subtle cues of face, body and voice as I was used to doing, at some point I simply stopped trying to do so. Instead, I concentrated on the less subtle cues, the overall feel of the conversation. I began experimenting with different listening techniques. Turns out that for an empath like me, it is easier to keep people on track when I don’t sense the full radiation of their emotions.

image: x-ray of Dayton C. Miller by Edith Easton Miller, ca. 1895,  Dayton C. Miller Collection, Library of Congress
“Three months after the discovery of X-rays Professor Miller ‘posed’ and Mrs. Miller operated the apparatus. The composite photograph is one of the first and finest ever made.”

The distance created by the screen helps some people better navigate their own emotions as well. In videoconferences, I have seen shy people become more confident and outspoken, their audience or conversation partners at a (more) comfortable distance. I have seen people in meetings be more polite than they usually are, patiently giving each other turns to speak (even if they are not always listening). Because speaking simultaneously in a video call is annoying for all parties involved. I have seen young people gain an advantage over their elders in the digital environment, creating more egalitarian collaborations.

choose

In the rush of things, we often forget that there is room for choice. We can choose which channel to conduct a certain conversation or discussion on; we can choose how to shape that conversation or discussion. The way to communicating more efficiently, is learning what options you have, and choosing between them consciously.

Or rather: daring to choose. Because breaking loose from old habits (or from ‘the way we do things around here’) can be challenging. So don’t try to observe and implement everything at once. Keep it simple: try out one thing first. If it makes you nervous, make it a microscopically tiny thing. Allow yourself to practice, and to fail. Be kind to yourself. Spend time on yourself.

Need help in writing more clearly and succinctly? Want to practice your video-chairing skills? Develop a digital communication strategy specific to your situation? I am here to help.

A thank you to health scientist Mirjam Pol  for her explanation of the effects of multitasking on the brain.

main image: “electronic device to generate sleep, at the Russian stand during the spring fair at the Marijkehal in Utrecht,” March 14 1961, Nationaal Archief
photographer: Wim van Rossem, Anefo