‘Writing clearly is the new empathy’

October 1, 2021 Off By Sindy Thompson

Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance

  • By Erica Dhawan
  • Published by St. Martin’s Press
  • 288 pages, Paperback Rs 325

How best can we collaborate and foster connection in a workplace turning more digital by the day? Erica Dhawan has a compelling solution in her latest book. Understanding the cues and signals of digital body language will help us become better communicators and build stronger relationships, she says. Published by St. Martin’s Press, Digital Body Language is yet another expression of Erica’s interest in 21st century collaboration and connectional intelligence. She is the founder and CEO of global consulting firm Cotential, a keynote speaker, and also co-author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Excerpts:

How would you define ‘digital body language’? What is the relevance of understanding its signals in the 21st century context?

Digital body language serves the same purpose as traditional body language does in our in-person conversations and is important for all of the same reasons. Research shows that non-verbal cues — posture, pauses, tone, eye contact, hand gestures – make up 60 to 80 per cent of our face-to-face communication. We rely on these non-verbal body language cues to connect and build trust with one another — but these skills are harder to translate across a screen. We now infuse digital body language, which are the cues and signals that make up the subtext of our online messages. In today’s digital world, building empathy and trust is no longer about what we say but how we say it with our digital body language.

Could you offer a glimpse into the personal experiences that led to the shaping of the book?

As a first-generation American girl born to Indian parents, I came to English in an indirect way. At home, my parents, both physicians who had immigrated to the United States in their twenties, spoke Punjabi and only rarely English. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh, I spent a lot of my childhood trying to fit in. Pivoting between the thickly accented English of my parents and my own bad Hindi and wanting to feel like I belonged somewhere, I developed the ability to decipher other people’s body language in order to understand the foreign worlds around me. I watched the popular girls with their heads high and cool kids slouching in class. My preoccupation with translating nonverbal cues soon became a source of power as I learned to mimic the body language of my more confident peers and decode what my Hindi-speaking family members were saying. It motivated me to start my own business and become a collaboration expert and before I knew it, I was addressing global leaders at the World Economic Forum and becoming a “sought-after” keynote speaker by CEOs, teaching twenty-first-century collaboration skills to thousands of leaders across a range of industries, companies, and countries.

“These days, we don’t talk the talk or even walk the talk. We write the talk.” Given this reality, where should our focus lie so as to become better communicators?

Contemporary written communication relies more than ever on how we say something rather than on what we say. That is, our digital body language. The digital body language cues we send — word choices, response times, video meeting styles, punctuations, and email signatures — form impressions that can either enhance or damage our work relationships with colleagues, bosses, and clients. With 70 per cent of work communication taking place digitally, becoming better communicators requires understanding the cues and signals that we’re sending with our digital body language and tailoring them to create clear, precise messages.

What are the laws that guide digital body language?

The four laws of digital body language are Value Visibly, Communicate Carefully, Collaborate Confidently, and Trust Totally. The first law, Value Visibly, is about being attentive of others and showing that we appreciate them. It means honouring other people’s schedules and making the effort to communicate the equivalent of a smile or “thank you” across digital channels. The second law, Communicate Carefully, involves making continuous efforts to minimize the risk of misunderstandings and misinterpretations by being as clear as possible in our words. This means keeping employees informed and up-to-date, and then checking in to support their work. The third law, Collaborate Confidently, means empowering others to respond with care and patience instead of pressing them to reply to everything immediately in a 24/7 workplace. When we do this, we are able to manage the fear, uncertainty, and worry that defines the modern workplace. Finally, with the fourth and final law, Trust Totally, we establish 360-degree engagement and develop an open team culture, where everyone knows they are listened to and can ask for help.

“Reading carefully is the new listening. Writing clearly is the new empathy.” Please elaborate.

We read on a screen, we devote less time, are more inclined to multitask, and tend to skim and search instead of reading slowly and carefully. One big reason we read so poorly online is that typically we’re moving at lightning speed. But we’re really not as busy as we think we are. According to linguist Naomi Baron, a lot of our speed, and our anxiety around speed, is artificial, which ends up costing us accuracy, clarity, and respect.

When writing, do the little things. Check your tone, and think about how your message may be perceived, especially based on your rank. Ultimately, the goal is to show that you’ve really read other people’s messages by addressing all their relevant points and answering any questions. A lot of the time, a misinterpreted email is the result of a dropped word or misleading punctuation mark. The solution is simple: proofread your emails! Proofreading is both a habit and a skill: making it a point of pride to send clean, unambiguous copy will help people take what you write more seriously.

How does the power-trust gap pan out in digital communication?

How — and what — we signal in digital communication depends on how much we trust the person we’re communicating with. If you email a close colleague who has worked with you for years and the trust between you is high, he’s likely to interpret a curt message as a signal that you’re busy. But if the trust between you is low because of a turf war at work, he may interpret your brevity as a sign of resentment or anger. Trust goes much deeper too — variables like age and gender can play key factors in how we interpret the cues in others’ messages. A brief, to the point email without any niceties from a woman can make her appear bossy and authoritative while the same one from a man is a sign of his assertiveness and confidence.

There is no room for social, relationship-building activities when we work remotely. How can we create ‘digital watercooler moments’?

Create the time to just hang out and have fun together. It doesn’t have to be a strictly planned social gathering; five to ten minutes at the beginning of a team meeting will do. One company’s entirely remote team starts every morning with Zoom all-hands meetings to celebrate their successes and share challenges with each other. For another recruiting firm, virtual happy hours helped its members navigate the shift to remote work and boosted morale. Elsewhere, Zoom lunches became the new social cafeteria, where employees could come together and share virtual meals.

Check this book out on Amazon