While things like Zoom, email, Slack, and other digital communication platforms have allowed many of us to rapidly transition to working from over the past year, these tools are still relatively new and not without their flaws. Expert on digital teamwork, collaboration, and innovation Erica Dhawan has dedicated her latest book to helping avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings while we work remotely, and to fighting the creeping anxiety and fatigue around digital communication. Digital Body Language, out today, combines cutting edge research with engaging storytelling to decode the new signals and cues that have replaced traditional body language across genders, generations, and culture.
The fundamental issue at play, as Erica sees it, is that while these communication tools have allowed us to communicate instantly across vast distances, they usually lack many of the non-verbal cues we rely on to instinctively communicate with one another. However, it is possible to practice new habits to bring an etiquette and thoughtfulness to communicating online that mirrors our in-person conversations. Speaking with Forbes about her new book, Erica gave these examples of how we can translate some of our face-to-face actions to the virtual world:
With traditional body language, if you’re talking to someone and their head is tilted to the side, it demonstrates that they are actively listening. In digital body language actively listening involves “liking” a text or a detailed reply to an email.
A second example is smiling. We all know when someone is smiling when we’re face to face. The way to show we’re smiling digitally is to use exclamation points and emojis (well, within reason) and to add nice phrases such as “Have a great weekend” to the end of an email.
A third example is pausing for a few seconds and nodding, signaling you’re thinking about what’s just been said. When communicating across a screen, taking a few extra minutes to write a longer or more detailed response to an email that shows thought and focus.
With advice in the new book ranging from tips like these, to detailed guides on how to run better remote meetings, there is a core set of “laws” that Erica highlights in Digital Body Language. In another interview, this time with Publishers Weekly, she discussed these important principles that guide her advice and how we can go about learning to make them a part of our skillset.
Can you talk a bit about the four laws of digital body language you identify in your book?
The first law is “value others visibly.” Be sensitive to others’ time and needs, read communications with care and attention, respect others. The second is “communicate carefully.” We need to think before we type, state what we need, eliminate confusing ambiguity. The third is “collaborate competently.” Give your team the freedom to take conscious risks, give them the right amount of consistent communication so they can do their best work. Follow up on what you said you would do. The fourth rule, “trust totally,” is the sum of the first three. Everyone needs to feel psychologically safe and be able to show vulnerability.
How can people develop these skills?
Individuals need to understand the messages they’re sending, even if they’re unconscious. General rules of thumb: Never confuse a brief message with a clear message. Really review responses; don’t just reward the first person to respond. Understand how extroverts and introverts communicate, and create a variety of spaces for them to communicate. Earlier this year, I ran a study of 2,000 office workers on digital body language challenges. The average employee is wasting four hours a week on poor or confusing communications. That’s $889 billion a year in wasted salary in the U.S.
That last quote highlights why Erica’s new book and her content on this subject is just as useful to business leaders as it is to employees. It’s at once helpful to reduce misunderstandings while also improving engagement and boosting collaboration. Erica hopes that with Digital Body Language she can help create a set of collectively understood guidelines that foster connection, no matter the distance.
Erica Dhawan says we all have the power to drive innovation, but first we need to get past the roadblocks we create for ourselves: endless meetings, cross-team dysfunction, resource-wasting duplication, and a lack of real, meaningful inclusion. Drawing on her original research, frontline experience, and proven practical methods, Erica helps teams and organizations tap into their Connectional Intelligence and take their collaboration to the next level in an era of digital-first workplaces.