Posted by: virtualteambuilders | March 6, 2012

We Need to Talk: Effective Verbal and Nonverbal Virtual Communication Tips

Frustrations in the virtual workplace—or any workplace for that matter, can often arise when the communicator’s message does not align with the receiver’s understanding of the message. This is what we call miscommunication—and the unfortunate bit about virtual correspondence is that often, a large amount of information is lost because there isn’t a strong visual component. This creates more room for miscommunication to occur. Here are a few tips on how you can improve your verbal and non-verbal communication in the virtual workplace.

Verbal Communication

Phone and Voice Chat Meetings

Nowadays, online voice meetings are almost synonymous with virtual work. But once again, without the video infrastructure, much information can go unheeded—simply because you can’t see what the other individual is saying. Do you ever find yourself nodding during a phone call or voice chat…and then realize that the other person can’t see this very integral gesture of comprehension? So how do you replace body language in verbal, non-physical communication? Repeat after me: repeat after me.

That’s right…repetition.

After a team member or leader explains his or her ideas to you, at the end of their talk, repeat your understanding back to the individual. This provides an opportunity to fill any gaps on both sides of the conversation. Also, when repeating a misunderstood version of the idea, an entirely new concept may emerge—a winning concept even! If the original understanding made sense the first time the listener heard it, and it made enough sense for him or her to repeat it confidently, there must be some merit to the idea.

In addition, it is also important to consciously acknowledge the speaker when he or she explains anything for a long stretch. You may be listening in silence, but within a voice call, silence may be easily confused with just the opposite! The speaker may think the call dropped or you are unable to hear due to technical difficulties. Use words such as “Right”, “Okay”, “I see”, or even the good ol’ “mmhmm” to communicate you are following along.

Non-Verbal Communication

The Email

Writing an email is truly an art. A good email requires thought and proper execution. Moreover, emails are completely text based, which is why the sender should take additional care when composing his or her electronic mail. First of all, before you hit “SEND”, ask yourself: is the message clear? Are there extraneous words?

In a high pressure work environment, it’s often difficult to answer the daily maelstrom of emails in high detail. The busiest individuals will probably respond with a single line or a couple words. However, a lack of detail should not mean a lack of clarity. Lists and bullet are a great way to summarize main concerns and ideas. Note: making a list doesn’t mean writing a paragraph with each sentence inputted as a different bullet point. The bullet form style summarizes ideas into short phrases using key words (and numbers). The philosophy: Say what you need, in 5 second speed. Can each bullet point be read and understood in 5 seconds, give or take a couple seconds?

With bullet forms, be careful that you do not come across as rude or indifferent. If someone emails you in full sentences and attempts to be as clear as possible, it is important to recognize the effort that went into writing that email. A general rule of thumb is to try and imitate the sender’s style of emailing. Even in face-to-face communication, both parties of the conversation constantly calibrate and fine tune responses and body language based on the other person’s communication style. This should apply to emailing as well. But wait! This doesn’t mean writing a whole page if the sender writes in detail*, it just means, respond with more than a sentence; maintain a balance. So alternatively, if the email is written in short point form, your email should probably reflect the same style

*an issue which requires a one page response should probably be discussed in a meeting!

IM (Instant Messaging)

Instant messaging is much closer to a real time conversation than emailing due to the frequency and speed of the exchange. For this reason, IM etiquette is quite different from email etiquette. If you want your IMs to be a more accurate representation of your speech and body language, consider using emoticons—this not only expresses facial expressions, but also your overall reception of the message. Consider the examples below. Which IM response would make an employee feel more secure about an inquiry?

Example 1:

John_Smith: Did you have any comments on the report I sent you last week?

Jane_Doe: No.

Example 2:

John_Smith: Did you have any comments on the report I sent you last week?

Jane_Doe: No :).

The first IM carries an impression of severity and finality. John could quickly assume that Jane is indifferent to his work and doesn’t wish to continue the discussion. The smiley, on the other hand, is welcoming. Using this device quickly communicates Jane’s approval and satisfaction with the report. In addition, she does not need to spend extra time typing out her approval with words such as “It was fine”, or “Thanks for the work”. The smiley says it all.

One thing to be wary of is over elaborate emoticons. These just appear as visual clutter and can further confuse IM recipients. Stick to standard emoticons such the smiley face :), very happy :D, confused :S sad :( (or for you risk takers, the cheerful/joking smiley :P). Also, do not over decorate your IMs with emoticons. This becomes visually overwhelming—and frankly speaking, slightly annoying. Be aware of what is acceptable in your corporate culture. Some companies are more open to using emoticons than others. Again, maintain balance.

So how do you deal with virtual miscommunication in your workplace? Got any other tips to add to the tip jar? Let us know and thanks for reading!

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