Communication is difficult and susceptible to misinterpretation and confusion even under the best face-to-face conditions. Even when we are physically present to see the faces and body language of our audience and can quickly read cues that reflect uncertainty and lack of understanding, we still often struggle to clearly and fully communicate our message and meaning. While we can adjust quickly and backtrack to clarify our message and meaning in response to the cues we observe, we still can miss fleeting looks and expressions that tell us when our communication is falling short.
When we move to virtual environments, the challenges we face grow as we do not have access to many of the subtle, nonverbal messages and nuanced physical cues that can alert us to communication disconnects and confusion. Still, there are steps we can take and strategies we can employ to buttress our messages and clarify our communication. Here are five considerations to navigate communication traps and challenges in a virtual world.
First, be open and clear about the purpose and goals of your communication. The more specific and explicit you are about the message you want to communicate, the greater the likelihood that your audience will grasp your intent and respond in alignment with your intentions. Start by deciding what you want to achieve or what action you hope to stimulate. Build your message on this foundation. If you are not clear, you cannot expect your audience to understand or interpret what you say in a way that is consistent with your intentions. In a virtual world, leaving gaps for others to fill in or wandering around the core of your message is an invitation for confusion and frustration.
Second, don’t ignore the importance of listening. Real listening must come before real communication. If we don’t know the context within which others will hear our message, especially when they are not in our physical presence, we are speaking or writing in the dark. When practical, explore the perspectives and concerns of your audience before attempting to communicate. This step may require a brief conversation, recalling what you know about the experience and perspectives of the audience, or imagining how the message might be received and reflecting on the questions the audience may have. Resist making assumptions or guessing. Either choice is an invitation for miscommunication. In most circumstances, if you are not listening, you are not communicating.
Third, monitor the tone of your message. When you are speaking, tone is tightly associated with your voice, although the words you choose also can convey tone. Communication theorist Albert Mahrabian popularized the 7-38-55 rule of communication. Mahrabian has observed that only about 7% of what we communicate is conveyed verbally, 55% of our message is conveyed nonverbally via body language, and the remaining 38% is conveyed through our tone. While this breakdown may not always be exact, it is true that an important portion of our communication is driven by tone. In a virtual environment, body language can be difficult to observe so our words and tone play even greater roles in how we communicate. Be sure to breathe normally, watch the pace of your words, and pay attention to the pitch of your voice. All three contribute to what people hear as your tone.
Fourth, remain open and transparent with your audience. Share your perspective but be willing to hear and accept views and perspectives that may differ. Admit, where appropriate, that you may not yet have all the information necessary or be ready to take a final position. Invite others to share their experiences, information that might bear on the topic, and ideas regarding potential courses of action. Meanwhile, be clear about elements and aspects of the situation or issues that are decided and not open for discussion. Mistrust and confusion can surface quickly if the audience begins to feel manipulated or patronized.
Fifth, confirm that your message was received clearly and address any confusion. Taking time to confirm that we have been heard and our intent and expectations are clear is important in a face-to-face environment. This step is even more crucial in a virtual world. We can quickly find that people are taking actions and moving in directions we never intended, all believing that they are acting in alignment with our message. Spending a few minutes inviting questions, exploring what people see as implications, and even having audience members repeat the message can reduce confusion, prevent wasted time and energy, and increase consistency of effort going forward.
Communication is a key tool for building shared purpose, growing trust, and marshalling energy to achieve important goals. However, it can easily be undermined by lack of clarity, subtle distractions, and misalignment of understanding. The challenge is even greater in a virtual world, but success is within reach if we take the time to prepare carefully, share openly, and confirm completely.