A close friend confessed that she missed the human connection on the zoom calls. She longed to get back to the office and meet people in real-time. On the contrary, I have had the most beautiful conversations and productive outcomes while attending online meetings. My best experience has been in the Interintellect Salons held online, where I had some of my most memorable moments of meaningful connection and engagement in 2020. Each experience of 3 hours long calls has been intellectually stimulating, but they seem to have cracked the code for creating a series of “human moments” for most of their participants. More about it a little later.
2020 has been a landmark year for all of us. The amount of time spent collectively over personal and professional calls might run into millions of hours. The bigger question that set me off thinking was, “How many of those minutes or hours were moments of real presence and connection, especially in a virtual setting?” Technology has played a crucial role in maintaining continuity in all life spheres. But one cannot deny that human presence is fundamental to connection and communication of any kind.
The success or failure of any online or offline communication is hugely dependent on presence. Presence is the subjective aspect of the communication jigsaw. Biocco and Novak described social presence or co-presence refers to the “sense of being with another.” Short (1976) conceptualized social presence and defined it as the salience of the interactants and their interpersonal relationship during a mediated conversation.
The human moments experienced during these brief encounters stand at the tower of meaningful interaction. The term “human moment” was coined by Harvard psychiatrist Edward Hallowell. It is critical in a digital world now than ever to retain our humanness in all aspects of our being. Be it work or personal; communication plays an important role. Is it possible to have these moments on a virtual call? In my few decades of existence, I have a fair understanding of how it works in personal and professional settings. I put on my curious hat to dig into this topic and share my findings from the research.
Cultivating Meaningful Online Presence on Calls:
Intimacy and immediacy are two key pillars of the social presence theory. Intimacy refers to the feeling of connectedness and comfort that communicators experience during any interaction. In contrast, “immediacy” is defined as the psychological distance between the communicator and the recipient.
Establishing Intimacy :
My best moments on professional and personal calls have been the ones where I had moments of joy, accomplishment, and connectedness. So here are a few ways to establish these moments :
1. Emotions Matter:
My mother was a highly intuitive person. She used to immediately decipher my emotional state as soon as I uttered my first word on the call. I bet all mothers have this inane ability of authentic emotional engagement. There are two critical things that I learned from her. The first is emotional intelligence, and the latter being active listening. Emotion intelligence encompasses elements of empathy, attention, trust, respect, self-regulation, awareness, and motivation needed in communication. Listening can help decode the emotions on the call. As per a recent study, hearing outperforms sight in detecting emotions. During zoom calls, while maintaining eye-contact, if you focus on the speakers’ voice, you can easily hear the conversation’s emotional undertones.
But one often finds the advice to leave emotions out, especially on a business call. I humbly disagree with it. Emotions are an intrinsic part of us. Our mental models regulate them based on need and circumstances.
Understanding the emotional nuances can help interactants explore real connections during the call. Encourage personal exchanges. Taking a few minutes to connect and chat on things apart from the plan can serve as an ice-breaker.
The quality of the interaction anchors on the people who attend the call. Both participants and hosts play an equal role in these interactions. The participants need to be respectful of each other by acknowledging, accepting, and contributing to the discussion as applicable. The hosts play a larger role in group settings. They need to have the right set of skills to design and build meaningful interactions.
Going back to the Interintellect experience, the hosts play a pivotal role in shaping these discussions. These salons have a central theme with an average of 15–20 participants that interact for 3 hrs. The after salon testimonials are proof of these exhilarating experiences.
The hosts are highly empathetic, active listeners, observers, establish trust, and manage these calls quite effortlessly. The focussed attention leaves each person coming out feeling heard. The best part is that experience is the same irrespective of the salon host. In business calls, the drudgery of routine can be an invisible block. While objectives and productive outcomes are the office calls’ locus, it is imperative to zoom back into the people involved for better discussions. The best practice in office calls is always to have a co-host to help run these smoothly with focused attention.
It is also imperative to understand the personality mix of the people present on the calls. One needs to moderate the call based on the introvert: extrovert ratio. If the number of introverts is high, soft nudges and prompts to help them open up in the discussion can be highly useful. Having a social chat option open can help them engage in large settings. If the group consists of too many extroverts, then the host needs to manage the flow by ensuring they get a chance to voice their thoughts.
3. Decode the Cues:
Everyone needs to pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues. The cues can be visual, vocal, facial, physical, and environmental. While the cues are self-explanatory, I would like to stress the environmental cue. Everyone is working from home in a different environment with their own set of constraints. It is important to be mindful of the participants and their surroundings.
4. Humour :
Humour can be an excellent way to start or end the call. We get caught up in meeting the call agendas, but that doesn’t stop us from having a chuckle or two. I like this quote.
Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” –Leo Rosten.
Mastering Immediacy :
Immediacy is the psychological distance between the communicator and the recipient. It is the urgency with which the communicators respond to each other in the exchange. In large group communications, immediacy can be a considerable challenge.
1. Power of Pause
It is essential to set the ground rules of engagement during a group call or meeting before the call starts. It ensures that people take a pause and allow each other to communicate. A good practice is to have a timed rain check ensuring that everyone has had a chance to speak. In a majority of the official calls, people have a preset order of speaking. I prefer an open flow depending on the agenda of the call. The introduction of pauses and silences will help the communication flow in an equivocal manner.
2. Acceptance :
Let’s be honest here and make room to accept mistakes. Each call is an insight for the next time to nurture and produce more human moments. Establishing the reality at the start of the call can put everyone at ease. The failing of technology, infrastructure, and we are real possibilities.
The humility to accept and correct can help have meaningful interactions.
3. Tools :
The above can work well if the hygiene factors (schedule, technology, planning, etc.)are in place.
There is one more important part that is easily forgotten and needs to be kept in mind. It is essential to be mindful of any unconscious biases formed during these brief windows of interaction concerning gender, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds. As people join in from the confines of their home, one needs to be respectful of each other to avoid forming any judgments. The practical way to counter these biases is to be aware, dismantle assumptions, and encourage inclusive dialogues in such situations.
The language and flow of communication have been ever-changing. The human experience has undergone massive shifts from the Bell telephone era to this day. Technology has improved our lives multifold with efficiency, speed, and access gains. Who knows we might see a rise in VR-aided online communication by the next pandemic. I have merely treaded on the surface of this topic. The one thing that keeps coming back to my mind is that the medium is merely a way to a means and is not the end. Technology is an enabler, but the onus of creating human moments still lies on you and me. I am yet to master the art of weaving these intricate and purposeful moments but I continue to reflect and learn from each interaction. All we need is to create and find our own moments of connectedness in each interaction.
I would love to hear about your thoughts and ideas from your online interactions.
PS: I am IK. All things human move me deeply. I enjoy writing articles that bring the human element to the forefront across a cross-section of topics ( business, technology, and operations)