We all rely so much on non-verbal communication – experts estimate that a full 70% of the information we pick up from others during a face-to-face encounter comes from “non-verbal information” – body language, facial expressions, physical proximity, volume regulation, etc. Since that category of information is unavailable to us in our online encounters (emails, online education, webinars) are those interactions, by definition, less rich? Inferior?
No doubt, there is something lost when we can not read the facial expressions of our online associates, but I think there are ways to augment and buttress our online exchanges. It’s just a different skill set; a new way of thinking about information.
After many hours spent in virtual worlds and in online meetings, I can definitely say that I’ve developed an intuition around the way people “chat” and text message within those spaces. I’ll call it “chat gut”. The online spaces we use typically include a local chat function. It’s usually a small box in the corner of the screen where everyone with you live online can chat to the entire group or to an individual, privately. There is an etiquette to this chat (more on that in a minute) but, to the point of this post, there is a tremendous amount of information conveyed by, not only what you type in that space, but the way you type it. For instance, I can tell when someone is new to using chat (it’s like I can sense their hesitancy). More experienced chatters type fluently, quickly, and they use the short cuts and conventions of a chat environment. For instance, they will use the @ to direct a comment to a specific person, a * next to a word to indicate a correction of a previous typo, or the clever use of italic. There is also an easy humor evident with frequent chatters – a sort of self-effacing banter – that works like WD-40 to ease the tensions of the meeting.
In online meetings I use the chat frequently – to tap into the heads of everyone in the “room” (what do they think? what do they know? and do they have something to add to the discussion?). I also use it to make sure they’re there, with me, and have not drifted off. So frequent questions. For instance, “How many diabetes 2 patients do you each have in your practice? Could you type the number – as a percent – in the local chat at the bottom of your screen?” Pause. Wait for the gears to turn and the typing to pour in. Then follow up…”and what would you say is the primary issue those patients are dealing with?” That kind of progression – moving from a closed-probe question (that is answered with a straight yes or no or a number) to an open probe question (the answer could be anything) seems to work well. If you start with loosier-goosier questions, people tend to freeze up.
I thought of this when I read a recent Sunday NYT’s magazine feature on Jerry Seinfeld. He talked about being able to “read” the crowd during his standup routines. The crowd which, of course, he doesn’t know and can’t really see. He reads their laughter, explaining that “there are different kids of laughs. I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know when their attention has moved off…” Just so.