Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance
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Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance

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Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance

Erica Dhawan is a globally recognized leadership expert. She has spoken to organizations and enterprises that range from the World Economic Forum to U.S. and global Fortune 500 companies, associations, sports teams, and government institutions. Named as one of the top management professionals around the world by Global Gurus, Erica’s writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.

Below, Erica shares 5 key insights from her new book, Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance (available now from Amazon). Listen to the audio version—read by Erica herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Reading carefully is the new listening.

While we once shared information across a table or phone line, today our conversations happen in written form, via email or an instant message. The problem is that we comprehend less when we read on a screen than we do reading print. We tend to skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully. And a big reason we read so poorly online is that we’re typically feeling pressure to respond instantly. Our need for speed then leads to exchanges marred by miscommunication and confusion—the digital equivalent of talking over each other.

Ultimately, the goal is to show that you’ve really read other people’s messages by addressing all their relevant points and answering any and all questions. If it’s not possible to give a thoughtful answer quickly, let your colleague know you’ll get back to them with more answers when the time is right. One concrete action step is to establish clear response-time norms across all platforms with your team. For example, emails: respond within 36 hours. Calls: call back within a few hours, or text back to let them know when you can talk.

“A good phone call can save lots of time while simultaneously generating goodwill.”

2. Writing clearly is the new empathy.

The CMO of a pharmaceutical company was communicating with her team about preparing a presentation for a board meeting. She shared a quick idea over email: “Do you think we should add more research on oncology to the presentation?” She was picturing an extra two bullet points on one slide, but two weeks later, her team had spent 30 hours preparing 40 new slides on oncology research. So be mindful of writing “think-alouds,” and separate them from true marching orders.

Writing consciously is a critical mark of respect. Check your tone and think about how your message may be perceived, especially based on your rank. A lot of the time, misinterpreting an email could be due to a dropped word or misleading punctuation. The solution is simple: Proofread your emails before sending them. Take advantage of spell check and other proofreading programs. One concrete action step is to clearly define your expectations via email by bolding the text and/or using bullets to include the expected deadline, format, and length of the project.

3. A phone call is worth a thousand emails.

A good phone call can save lots of time while simultaneously generating goodwill. If you just received a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid 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 that you’re thoughtful. Instead of making you look indecisive, waiting a few beats before responding to questions shows the other person that you are listening and taking your work seriously.

With so many written platforms at our disposal, we can also get caught up in asking too many questions via 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. At the beginning of a project in particular, it’s more helpful to ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what success looks like,” or “What do the best next steps look like?” This will prevent a slew of frenzied email chains.

“The moment we receive a message is not always the best time to respond to it.”

4. Less haste equals more speed.

With the advent of the read receipt, as well as instant messaging forms such as Slack, it’s easier than ever to feel compelled to answer an email or message immediately. But typically, the moment we receive a message is not always the best time to respond to it. We need to fight the notion that you must respond to an email within 30 seconds.

To avoid responding to all your digital messages in haste, try blocking off time in your calendar to diligently and patiently respond to your emails, even if you don’t have time until the end of the day. Or if it’s a Slack message, perhaps you can respond, “Hey, I’ll answer your question in a bit” if you don’t have time immediately. Additionally, re-read what you’ve written before you send it—and double-check who is CC’d on the email!

5. Find your voice.

Brad, the SVP at a large gaming company, had observed a stark difference in the two Slack channels run by his direct reports, Allie and Dave. Dave, a self-proclaimed extrovert, had a Slack channel filled with emojis, GIFs, and memes. On the other hand, Allie, an introvert, had a more formal writing style, complete with bullet points. “With Allie’s Slack channel,” Brad says, “I’m at home. But I’ve learned that the best thing for me to do is try to become conversant in Dave’s informal digital body language too, even if it’s uncomfortable.” There isn’t a better or worse way of communicating between emojis and bullet points. The key for leaders is to create a digital environment that encourages a range of communication styles, so that everyone can engage authentically.

This is even important across the introversion-extroversion spectrum. Give your introverted team members the time and space they need to excel; send them questions before a meeting so they can prepare, and leave your virtual office door open in case they have more thoughts after a meeting. As for extroverts, encourage the use of breakout groups on Zoom or Slack so that they have the airtime to talk out their ideas without dominating a teamwide meeting.


To listen to the audio version read by Erica Dhawan, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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