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Is the face-to-face meeting dead?


In an age of electronic communications, do we really need to meet each other face-to-face any more?

Some would argue that the age of the live meeting is now past: we can work effectively with colleagues all over the world, without ever needing to see them. But others would say that the common hallmark of technological approaches to communication is that they encourage the participants to be more focused on 'broadcasting' than on 'receiving'.

It’s almost too easy nowadays to send off an email when you want someone to do something (or just to tell them how you feel) and it’s equally easy to ignore or misunderstand their disembodied response. We’ve all had emails that include a 'winking eye' or other emoticons: annoyingly blunt instruments, and no substitute for the subtlety of a live emotional signal. Similarly, a text message is nothing more than a hasty, one-way communication - or at best a series of them.

Trouble is, communication between people isn’t really as simple as that. In conversation, we are, in fact, simultaneously doing three quite distinct things:

  1. Listening to and understanding the words that are being said
  2. Gauging the tone in which they are being said – timidly, angrily, excitedly, with concern, or whatever
  3. Gathering up lots of non-verbal information too, from the way people are sitting or standing, their facial expressions, and the movements of their hands and eyes

But the words matter most... don’t they?

From an early age we spend a great deal of time focused on words, and we understand the value of teaching our children to read, write and develop their vocabulary. Words are undoubtedly great for conveying simple, factual information. But according to behavioural psychologists, the words we use count for as little as 7% of all the communication that is going on in a face-to-face conversation, with the rest being attributable to the ‘non-verbal cues’ that we pick up from voice tone, eye movements and body language.

"Words on their own – stripped of the rich context provided by voice tone and body language can be open to dangerous misinterpretation."

If you find that hard to believe, try a simple experiment. Sit down with a DVD of a film you’ve not seen before, but watch it with the sound turned off. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how easily you can follow the storyline, the ebb and flow of the human relationships, who the goodies and baddies are, and where the romantic interest lies. Try that with sound but no pictures and you’ll soon be struggling to keep up with the subtleties of the plot. If you need more proof, consider this: the words 'thank you' in an email are always a benign and friendly gesture of appreciation. But now imagine the same words being spoken to you with a voice full of anger and sarcasm, or alternatively with the curt and disapproving tone that a stern head teacher might use to silence a child who’s been talking during assembly. It quickly becomes clear that words on their own – stripped of the rich context provided by voice tone and body language – can be open to dangerous misinterpretation.

Voice tone, body language

It’s disturbing to think that email and text messages might condemn us to working with only 7% of the available information, but professional mediators and those who work in conflict resolution all seem to agree that text-based communication - and the attendant technologies - don’t have much of a part to play in their work. Anthropologists like Ray Birdwhistell (to whom much of the best work on non-verbal communication is attributed) estimated that humans are capable of around 250,000 different facial expressions, but on average use only about 2,500 different words on a regular basis.

"To make an accurate and reliable assessment of the veracity and honesty of what’s being conveyed you’ll need not one but four self-consistent ‘cues’"

Video conferencing promised a solution of sorts, yet its take-up has been strangely slow. It seems that the nuances and complexity of human interaction are such that there really is no substitute for actually being there. I can recall interviewing quite a few job applicants via video conference over the years, but can’t think of a single occasion where the candidate and interviewers were clearly as relaxed and natural as they might have been if we’d all been in the same room. Perhaps it’s to do with the effect of cameras, and the fact that most of us are a lot more self conscious if we think we’re being recorded.

There’s not room here to go into the subject of non-verbal communication in depth, but a focused day of training can really get people understanding, observing and thinking about other people’s body language, voice tone and behaviour – and their own.

The kind of question I sometimes get asked by delegates after that sort of session is “how can we use these ideas on body language and voice tone in a practical way, when it seems a bit imprecise and complex compared to the simplicity of the words people are saying?”

My answer is “use the rule of four”.

The rule of four

Never rely on just one facet of communication - for example, the words someone is using. To make an accurate and reliable assessment of the veracity and honesty of what’s being conveyed you’ll need not one but four self-consistent ‘cues’, which could include:

  • Words
  • Voice tone
  • Eye movements
  • Hand gestures
  • Body language
  • ‘Gut’ feeling
  • Previous history

It follows – rather logically – that training and practice might be needed in some of these aspects of communication if we are to become truly skilled and confident communicators: yet, up until now, our society has arguably been poor at helping people develop these skills.

A new competitive edge?

It seems ironic to me that in our ever more complex and electronic world, the skills that employers most frequently bemoan as being in short supply are the human ones: empathy, listening, problem-solving, and clear, articulate and effective communication.

Perhaps we have a simple choice: equip our staff with the knowledge, confidence and emotional intelligence needed to be properly attuned to all of the complex elements of face-to-face communication – or increasingly expose our organisations to the dangers and inefficiencies of technologically-driven alternatives that use just 7% of the available bandwidth.

Someone who attended one of my courses poignantly wrote on their feedback form “why weren’t we taught all this at school?”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Robert Marshall provides training, guidance and support in negotiation, conflict resolution and communications for a wide range of public and private sector clients in the UK and overseas. He has worked as head of technology transfer at the University of Cambridge, director of research and business services at the University of East Anglia, and before that in manufacturing management and as a quality manager. - [email protected] Copyright © 2009 Robert Marshall. Used by with permission.

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