The potential of non-verbal communication

Today we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language in our growing digital workspaces. We need a set of rules and norms for our digital communication.

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Today we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language in our growing digital workspaces. Being a good leader today means not only being aware of other people’s signals and cues but also mastering a new digital body language that didn’t exist twenty years ago, and which most people today “speak” as badly as I spoke Hindi as a kid!

For years, my mission has been to help CEOs and organizations solve the practical challenges of managing across global, multigenerational, matrixed, and virtual teams. Everywhere I’ve gone, the same questions have come up: How do I keep my teams feeling connected to each other and to people on other teams? How do I help people of different ages and working styles who rarely meet in person communicate effectively? Why does it seem infinitely harder to foster trust, engagement, and the confidence to take risks? And finally, why do my own communications so often seem to miss the mark, producing unintended and anxiety-filled consequences?

The more I worked with my clients to solve these problems, the more obvious it became that they were caused by the very digital tools that had set us free in so many ways. Our failure to grapple with the ways that the shiny new tools of the digital workplace—email, text messaging, PowerPoint, Zoom—has created widespread misunderstanding and conflict, which in turn has manifested as across-the-board anxiety, fear, distrust, and paranoia.

The good news is that our communication problems are eminently solvable with some attention to a skill I call digital body language. I have taught many leaders how to model digital body language for their teams and how to introduce it to their cultures, with remarkable results. I have trained managers, HR teams, and coaches how to embed digital body lan- guage skills into their leadership programs. And I have advised everyone from doctors using telehealth to professors using online learning platforms to lawyers, consultants, and board directors using virtual boardrooms how to master this skill. One leader told me that simple changes in digital body lan- guage not only transformed the communication in her entire organization but also enhanced the customer experience that she was able to provide from afar. Another executive told me it changed how he connected with his wife and children while traveling for business.

More and more clients and audience members of all ages were expressing high levels of fear, anxiety, and paranoia about communication in their workplace. Leaders were doing what they’d always done—for example, sharing messages of support and trust with their colleagues and teams—but more and more of those messages were being misunderstood, misinterpreted, or missed altogether. These leaders weren’t dumb or lacking in social skills, and many were conversant in cutting-edge methods of building strong cultures.

I realized that our understanding of body language needed to be redefined for the contemporary workplace. Today we’re all “immigrants” learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space. Being a good leader today means not only being aware of other people’s signals and cues but also mastering a new digital body language that didn’t ex- ist twenty years ago, and which most people today “speak” as badly as I spoke Hindi as a kid!

It was the world’s dirty little secret: some of the time—most of the time—people couldn’t make heads or tails of the tone behind messages they were getting in emails, text messages, conference calls, and so on. Nor were they entirely aware of how their own messages were being received. More than just a glitch or a nuisance—technology is such a pain!—our shiny new communication tools were causing serious issues. Work and decision-making had slowed. Teams were in disarray. Employees were left unmotivated, distrustful, uncertain, and paranoid.

It seemed that “digital body language”—or rather, the lack of a set of universally agreed-upon rules—was creating big problems across the globe: in workplaces, communities, and even families. Everyone knew about these problems, but no one talked about them, except anecdotally. There was no rule- book either. We had all grown up knowing how to read and write, some of us better than others (says the girl who remem- bers the day in school when reading aloud from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, she pronounced the word “peculiar” as “peck-you-liar,” which her classmates never let her forget), but there was no instruction manual about how to read signals and cues in a digitized world. Instead, people at work were squan- dering hours or even days in uncertainty, anxiety, and disquiet. 

I genuinely believe most people have good intentions. They just may not know how to convey those intentions.

How can we re-establish genuine trust and connection, no matter the distance? By creating a nuts-and-bolts rulebook for clear communications in the modern digital world. Communicating what we really mean today requires that we understand today’s signals and cues at a granular level while developing a heightened sensitivity to words, nuance, subtext, humor, and punctuation, things we mostly think of as the field of operations for professional writers.

Digital Body Language decodes the signals and cues of who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done in our ever-changing world. It will serve as a common-sense playbook that will help you understand how to communicate your ideas, negotiate relationships, speak your truth, and build trust and confidence with people very different from you. In the pages ahead, I will introduce simple strategies to help you and your teams understand each other and banish the con- fusion, frustration, and misunderstanding that arise from email, video, instant messaging, and even live meetings. My mission is to help you get closer to anyone—intellectually, emotion- ally, personally, professionally—and make you stand out as a trusted, straightforward leader, no matter the distance.

From Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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