You’ve been communicating virtually for months, so you must be an expert by now, right? Perhaps, but there’s one error you can avoid in order to communicate through virtual channels and be even more effective. And arising out of the mistake to miss are five ways to enhance your virtual performance overall.
Anything new takes more effort and requires more conscious thought. Communicating virtually is no exception. Generally, as you become more comfortable, you can reduce the brain power something takes, and put more of the task into your subconscious. Riding a bike, long boarding or driving are examples. When you’re first learning, they require more thought. Eventually, they become second nature and you don’t have to think consciously about using your turn signal or getting into the proper lane to take a left. There is one thing, however, which can benefit from conscious thought, especially when you’re communicating virtually—the intentions you ascribe to others.
The Error To Avoid
We humans regularly make “attribution errors.” We tend to be more generous to ourselves when things go wrong than we are to others. In particular, when others do something that annoys us, we tend to explain their behavior based on their character (“He cut me off in traffic. He is a rude and selfish.”). On the other hand, when we do something less-than-ideal, we tend to explain our own behavior based on circumstances (“Oops, I just cut that guy off in traffic. It’s because the construction lane closure came up on me suddenly!”).
This matters to virtual communication because we have far less nonverbal communication on which we can rely. As humans, we would be making attributional errors anyway, but the limitations of virtual communication exacerbate this challenge. We can’t see facial expressions as well. We can’t hear tones of voice as clearly, and we can’t see people’s surroundings as thoroughly. All of this makes us more likely to jump to conclusions or be less likely to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone is late, we assume they have de-prioritized our meeting, when in reality, they may be having technical issues. If someone doesn’t turn on their camera, we assume they didn’t get up early enough to be camera-ready, when in reality, their new puppy is being rambunctious in the background.
Enhancing Virtual Effectiveness
So, how can you be more effective with virtual communication, and ensure you make less attributional errors?
Give people space. Everyone is dealing with more stress than usual lately, and tensions are generally higher than they would be normally. Give everyone a bit more latitude. If you’re used to starting meetings precisely on time, consider giving your colleague a few minutes of grace. If you prefer to always have the camera on for meetings, be willing to have an off-camera meeting now and then.
Be intentionally empathetic. It may sound trite but putting yourself in another’s position really can help communication. Consider what your teammate might be thinking (cognitive empathy) or what they might be feeling (emotional empathy) under the circumstances you know they’re facing. Do your best to be considerate and empathetic.
Ask questions. Of course, it’s easier to be empathetic if you know what someone is going through. So, ask questions about how your colleague is doing and how they’re holding up. You don’t have to be invasive but inquire enough to let them know you care and you’re paying attention. Then listen and tune in to what they have to say.
Be forgiving. This is a time when people are likely to make more mistakes and fail more often. At the beginning of the pandemic, employees reported they were especially productive and effective. But now people are increasingly saying they are hitting walls. With mental health issues on the rise and stress and anxiety increasing regularly, it is logical work will suffer. Be forgiving if colleagues miss a beat or aren’t up to their normal standards. Give feedback and offer support so they can get on their feet again—knowing they’ll do the same for you.
Build relationships. You know the sayings: True character is evident through difficult times. This is especially true in how we communicate now. The empathy, compassion and grace you express will reflect positively on your character. The science of personality suggests when conditions are normal, we are more likely to act out of our best attributes. But under stress, we tend to be “beside ourselves” and act out of our less-preferred styles. The extrovert may become more aloof, or the coworker who has an uncanny intuitive accuracy with customers may lose her touch. Know all this is temporary and use these situations to reach out, demonstrate caring and build relationships. Sociologically speaking, we tend to build some of the strongest relationships during hard times, so you can use these circumstances to find the best in yourself and in others.
Virtual communication isn’t easy, and we can’t take it for granted. We’ll all be relieved to get back to more in-person and less virtual communication. But in the meantime, be intentional about how you use virtual channels and how you communicate with as much effectiveness as possible during hard times—your career may depend on it.
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