Digital body language: why we all need to be fluent

How to be fluent in digital body language

Remember those days when you’d get dressed, rush out the door, grab a coffee and burst into the conference room at 9.05am for the Monday team meeting, heart racing, hair all over the place? Those Monday-morning meetings have now been replaced by a Zoom call where no one can tell if your morning was rushed or you’ve just done an hour-long yoga session. Effective communicators have raved for years about the value of non-verbal language. “It makes up 60%-70% of our interactions,” they say. But what happens when all our communication takes place through a screen? When we’re left with nothing but a camera? How do you read body language when there’s no body there to read?

The 21st-century worker is faced with a new skill to master: digital body language. In her book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, Erica Dhawan, the daughter of immigrant parents, says: “Today we’re all ‘immigrants’ learning a new culture and language, except this time it’s in the digital space.” She goes on to explain her experiences, takeaways and tips around the best and most effective ways to navigate today’s digital workplace.

What is Digital Body Language (DBL)?

Believe it or not, more than 375 billion emails are sent worldwide on a daily basis, along with an average of 5 million Slack messages, while 300 million participants join Zoom meetings every single day. (Not so) surprisingly, however, half of the time, these communications are misinterpreted. Both the social scene and the workplace are now highly digital, with the absence or addition of a punctuation mark having the power to make all the difference. Digital body language, like any language, is a system of gestures, cues and soft rules that you must follow in order to communicate effectively in this environment. DBL gives us a common baseline and thus helps us to avoid misunderstandings. As Dhawan says in her book: “These days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.”

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The 4 laws of DBL

Digital body language has four precise laws:

1. Value visibly

“Stop disrespecting me!”

Two words: respect and appreciation. It’s vital that we state these explicitly in a digital setting. In the real world, a quick smile, a firm handshake, a pat on the back or a thumbs up usually does the job. This doesn’t translate online, however. A thumbs-up emoji means something completely different, and the gap between a single exclamation mark and two at the end of a sentence shows how sensitive things are. Valuing visibly is essentially going out of your way to translate these emotions clearly in a digital medium. “Valuing visibly means not assuming people are OK,” says Dhawan. In her book, she explains the different facets of how to make people feel digitally “heard” – an important part of which is caring about their time and becoming what she refers to as a “meeting ninja.”

Tips on making meetings more valuable for everyone:

  • Make sure everyone knows the answer to the question “Why am I in this meeting?”

  • Schedule meetings for the shortest amount of time.

  • Define the desired outcome before the meeting.

  • “If you have invited a senior leader to a meeting, clearly state whether their attendance is optional and whether a proxy is requested if the senior leader can’t attend,” Dhawan says.

2. Communicate carefully

“Think before you type”

When we’re online, we’re missing context and cues. We might mean one thing, but without visible eye contact, body language or gestures we’re at risk of being misunderstood. Communicating carefully is all about ensuring we’re putting out crystal-clear signals so the person we’re addressing is fully informed and gets the whole picture. “Communicating carefully means getting to the point while considering context, medium and audience,” Dhawan says.

Here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • Slow down: who needs to receive this message? What do I expect them to do on receiving it? Which is the best channel to put it across? Am I OK with this message being passed on?

  • Be tone-deft, not tone-deaf: make messages scannable (bullet points, subheadings); show instead of tell; use if/then statements to increase accountability and clarity; present precise options instead of open-ended questions such as, “What do you think?”

  • Know when to change the channel: choosing the right channel can be determined by focusing on the length of a message, how complex it is, and how familiar we are with the receiver and the receiver is with the subject matter.

“When punctuation and acronyms set us off into bouts of uncertainty, self-doubt, anxiety, anger, self-hatred and mistrust, we can be sure we’re living in unmapped times,” says Dhawan.

“Also: make sure you measure success with details. Confirm that everyone understands what he or she has agreed to, including the owners, actions and deadlines you expect. Lastly, set up a process to regularly review these measures of success to track progress and make ongoing adjustments whenever necessary.”

3. Collaborate confidently

“Teamwork in a digital age”

We’ve all been there – while we’re busy contemplating, “What would they think?”, “Should I say this?” or “What if they judge me?”, someone else goes ahead and says exactly what we wanted to. As Dhawan says in her book, based on a survey of more than 23,000 employees, 60% of all workers need to consult with at least 10 colleagues daily just to get their job done. This goes to show how embedded teamwork is in our daily lives, which means we need to design a way to collaborate that isn’t riddled with fear and anxiety. “Collaborating confidently begins by understanding what other departments do – and establishing clear norms on how they interact with one another,” Dhawan says.

As we begin to do that, here are some aspects to consider:

  • Stay in the loop:“Collaborating confidently is about keeping all relevant parties informed and up-to-date while checking in constantly to ensure ongoing clarity in all components.”

  • Be consistent:“To battle today’s erosion of confidence at work, often caused by changing priorities, it is critical to be consistent in our messages.”

  • Follow up strategically: make sure to be clear that this is a follow-up and not a new task – avoid involving new people in the loop.

4. Trust totally

“Innovate faster and further together”

Easier said than done – trusting totally is difficult for leaders as well as team members, especially in the beginning. “In businesses with high levels of trust totally, teams are encouraged to work hard, because they are valued visibly and supported as they close in on their goals. High-trust organisations communicate carefully and seldom face misunderstandings. And they collaborate confidently because they move past fear in team dynamics,” Dhawan says. “Trust totally” work culture is a top-down effort where all voices are heard, participation is voluntary and active and, when things don’t go as expected, people don’t jump to negative conclusions.

Pillars that this law stands upon are:

  • Creating psychological safety:“Psychological safety means being able to speak your mind without fearing any negative consequences to your self-image, status or career,” Dhawan says.

  • Allowing yourself to be vulnerable:“The more emphasis a leader places on vulnerability and learning, the easier it is for team members to speak up, ask questions and embrace the discomfort of uncertainty.”

  • Have authentic conversations: what are their needs? Where can you be most helpful? Also, why should they trust you?

“Digital body language is for people whose bosses and colleagues drone on and on about teamwork but never seem to do what’s necessary to facilitate it,” Dhawan says. “It’s for anyone swamped with in-person meetings, conference calls, emails, texts and social media platforms, those who have thrown up their hands and decided to just set it and forget it.”

As the world becomes increasingly digitised and we do our best to adapt, moulding our mannerisms will make a huge difference in impacting how we come across online. We must “do on the net as netizens do” – and this book is our guide to just that.

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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