Over the past year, public health mandates and stay-at-home orders in response to the Coronavirus pandemic have greatly impacted the way we live our daily lives. It has also changed the landscape of the workforce, as many industries have been forced to transition from the traditional brick-and-mortar office space to the virtual workplace.
This has given rise to a growing use of video conference and webcasting software to connect and communicate. In 2020,video conference app downloads hit a record breaking 62 million downloads between March 14-21, and the use of video conferencing services are expected to grow by 20 percent each year through 2022. Needless to say, these virtual meetings are no replacement for face-to-face conversations, and the limited parameters of video conferencing can sometimes set the stage for miscommunication.
Visual Cues and Nonverbal Communication
When we engage in face-to-face interaction with other people, we communicate not only with words, but also with our body language and other nonverbal cues. Our body language and nonverbal signals can speak volumes about our inner world without us ever making a sound. Verbal cues are extremely important, crucial in fact, when it comes to getting a message across. There are a couple reasons for this.
From childhood, we are programmed and conditioned to receive messages in the form of words, and also as visual cues in terms of how those words are delivered to us. Whether at school, or in the workplace, messages are typically delivered by someone, and we interpret or decode those messages based not only upon what we are hearing, but also what we are seeing.
It’s harder to read body language in a conference call, because we generally tend only to see the head and shoulders of other participants.
Varying Degrees of Non-Verbal Communication Skills
People communicate non-verbally in many ways. This is influenced by a few different factors. Some people are active and extroverted communicators. Others are quiet or passive communicators, and are more reflective – meaning that they think more about the process.
Active communicators are more demonstrative, using bigger gestures with more obvious facial expressions and a lot of movement, whereas someone who is more reflective in their communication style will use smaller gestures, less movement, and fewer facial expressions. Differences in communication style can greatly influence body language or non-verbal skills.
There is also a physiological reason why non-verbal skills are important. The optic nerve, which carries sensory nerve impulses to the visual centres in the brain are 25 times thicker than the nerve structures running from the ear to the brain.
This means that when someone observes a person, a group, or an environment, there is much more data for our brain to process in response to visual stimuli. As a result, people have a tendency to pay more attention to non-verbal cues and communication because of the sheer amount of information coming at them. They are not only hearing the message, but they are also seeing that message. This makes it important to ensure that both the message and the delivery are congruent.
Another factor that can affect an individual’s nonverbal communication skills and body language is their confidence in the topic or subject matter that they are discussing. If a person knows a lot about a topic, they tend to be more active in the way they communicate and share information on the subject matter. In comparison, for someone unfamiliar with a subject matter, their non-verbal skills would be more constrained, because they are spending more effort thinking about it. When someone is thinking intensely, their non-verbal communications seem to drop off. There seems to be a link between our mind and body in how we comprehend what we hear and see.
For example, during video meetings, we may notice someone breaking eye contact and looking away from us. What is happening, is that they are looking away in order to process what they heard or think of an answer. Alternatively, you may notice some people suddenly become monotone in a conversation. This generally means that they are thinking quite intensely, almost to the point of overthinking a response. Because so much effort is going into the thought process, non-verbal skills drop down.
The real challenge in decoding body language and non-verbal cues is not to overreact to it. Someone may just be deep in thought, and momentarily may appear less enthusiastic or engaged as they normally are.