The endless stream of online communication on our smart phones, tablets and laptops has become the new normal for the office space of tomorrow. For those of you who already work across borders like myself (my editor is based in Canada, the co-author of my upcoming book alternates between countries in Europe, my clients are in Palestine, India, Japan, Dubai, Europe and South Africa), the virtual world is probably already your daily business.
Online meetings, with video communication in only the best-case scenario, can be very challenging. A ‘yes’ from your counterpart doesn’t necessarily imply mutual understanding, and it can take some work to understand what exactly a ‘no’ is referring to.
How can we make communication through technology as successful as possible? Seven highly effective tools for successful online meetings.
1. Switch on your camera
Always be prepared to switch on your camera. Connecting the visual to the audio communication channel is essential to improving mutual understanding. Half of your communication partners are visual anyway!
2. Adapt your language
Find out which are common languages spoken between the two of you, and try your best to adapt to your counterpart’s language level. That means, when talking to a non-native speaker, slow down your speaking pace, try to avoid local abbreviations and slang, and be mindful of your accent. I remember my first training with native Irish, Australian, Indian and South African speakers - quite embarrassing as I had to double-check every other answer I received (not to mention that it hindered my participants’ learning). Native speakers should also be careful with humour, which often derives so much from local know-how and nuance that someone living in another region will likely find it impossible to follow, let alone laugh at.
3. Paint a bigger picture When explaining complex situations to a person who is not in the room (and who can only see and hear through a computer), we need additional tools. Metaphors, stories and examples can be especially useful to explain a complex or maybe new situation. For example,to illustrate how the shape of the moon evolves throughout themonth, using a cup, banana orsimply your hand gets the messageacross even if your listener isn’tfamiliar with the concepts concaveand convex. Which leads us to the next point …
4. Body language and micro expressions I often get asked ‘Do we really need the camera when meeting online?’ Yes, I know, it means having to do your hair and get dressed (instead of staying in your cosy sweater/pyjamas/bathrobe). But keep in mind that only 10% of our communication is delivered by words! The rest of the message is transmitted by body language, micro expressions, intonation and a person’s energy. Switching on a video camera therefore offers 23-communication channels to read, which can considerably diminish misunderstandings. A worthwhile investment, isn’t it?
5. Ask open questions, repeat messages in different ways and include your counterpart in the conversation When working online (particularly if you don’t have visual contact), it is very useful to ask a question such as ‘Does that make sense? What have you understood so far?’ or ‘I have been talking a lot. Could you tell me your take-away so far?’ (or whatever phrase feels natural to you). Sometimes a simple request (‘Would you like to summarise the above to make sure we are all on the same page?’) offers an opportunity to check in, and if you’ve been talking for a long time, helps keep your listener’s attention up.
6. Use compliments and acknowledgement Speaking in a non-native language always demands extra concentration and effort. A speaker explaining or asking questions at length, or a listener carefully and deeply listening without interrupting deserves real acknowledgement when done in a non-native language. Even stating the obvious, such as ‘Wow, we managed this online meeting within a very short time, considering we are not in the same room’ or ‘Wow, we both made great efforts here to make sure we have a mutual understanding’ is always encouraging and worth the time. After you deliver your message, be careful not to jump to conclusions such as ‘we have an agreement’. Rather, stay empathetic while listening and double-check that your counterpart:
• has understood, and if so, what they have understood (use open questions, ask them to summarise the conversation) • agrees on a timeline and next steps • is committed to take a next step (or knows who else will) • is on the same page regarding deliverables • has open questions or doubts (stay empathetic).
7. Take it slowly For all the above reasons, when working online, communication pace categorically needs to be adapted to what we might normally perceive as slow motion, compared to working with colleagues in the same office or region.
Working online definitely is a culture unto its own. We hope these tools give you an idea of how to hone your communication skills when working online. And remember, as with learning a new language, take your time and use every opportunity to practice, practice, practice!
Published: Middle East Business and News Magazine, 5th year, Issue 18, Mar - May 2018
Edited by Robyn Penney