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Parkin Space: Virtual Communication


Godfrey ParkinInterpersonal communication is no longer as straight forward as a face-to-face meeting and a handshake. Godfrey Parkin looks at how communications technology has impacted on this form of training.

After all these years in technology-based training, I am still not sure to what extent you can learn interpersonal skills online. I have spent much of my career teaching these skills in one form or another, and trying to adapt what is taught and how it is taught to evolving interpersonal contexts. Over the decades, while the principles of interpersonal communication have changed very little, the media in which such communication occurs have evolved and diversified dramatically. The emphasis on face-to-face has diminished as the technologies have become easier to use and more readily available.

Communication technologies have come and gone: When I first started in training, the fastest and most economical way to communicate at a distance was via telefax machine, using little holes punched on miles of yellow paper tape. Today we work with equally incomprehensible text messaging on mobile phones, but the essentials of effective interpersonal communication are still pretty much the same.

If I compare a snapshot of my business life today with one of the late 1970s, the most significant difference is the decreasing importance of distance. Back then I spent my life in traffic, planes, hotels, and meeting rooms, always leaving one meeting early to arrive late at the next, and rarely getting to spend a full weekend at home. Today I carry a larger workload, yet I rarely leave my home, let alone have to rush to catch a flight. Despite the lack of face-to-face contact, I have a much closer relationship with my clients than was ever possible in the jet-setting'70s and '80s. I do most of my sales, consulting, project management, client service and interpersonal communicating virtually, using a mix of online tools and telephone services – though even my phone is internet based.

I am the first to defend the power of face-to-face contact, but it is far from essential, and is certainly not the most efficient way to do business. Much of the touchy-feely stuff of last century is over-rated, at least where its contribution to effective communication is concerned.

Remember when everyone was so adamant that e-mail would never replace snail-mail? There was something allegedly magical about receiving an envelope with your name on it that you could touch and feel and turn over in your hands in anticipation of the real ink on the real piece of paper inside, all of which somehow conveyed to the message a weight beyond the mere meaning of its words. E-mail would never have the same impact, and would therefore never really catch on. But, as we all know, the opposite is true. E-mail has made it possible for greater interpersonal communication to take place because it is easy, fast, and effective. And there is more “interpersonal” in e-mail because of the immediacy with which interaction can take place.

The interpersonal skills fields I am most familiar with are sales and consulting, along with their associated skills of presenting, negotiating, and customer service. Traditionally, formal training in these areas involves the laying out of a model or theory, breaking it down into a series of processes, and examining what works and what fails within those processes. The theory is abundantly illustrated with examples and practice opportunities, and participants do a lot of role-playing that is monitored and evaluated. At first glance, it would seem that such training is ideally suited to some kind of blended learning, where participants would “get” the theory and much of the analytical practice through online learning, with the role-playing being reserved for a later classroom session. But that will not be particularly effective, since the acquisition of these skills really needs to be iterative and cumulative. You can’t expect people to “learn it all” and then “apply it all” in two segregated chunks of training. (This is one of the many places where basic two-stage blended learning falls flat on its face, not just in skills training but in most other areas as well).

So how do you train someone to interact with others without subjecting them to at least three days in a classroom? Role-playing appears to be the best way to hone your understanding and application of the principles. And if you are doing much of your communicating online, why not do your role-playing online too? I have structured training in which participants engage in e-mail, IM, webinar, or teleconferencing role-plays with each other, while their fellow participants and instructors follow along as observers or coaches. This can happen in real time, or the exchanges can be recorded for later debriefing. It’s effective, and can be just as nerve-wracking for the participants as doing something similar in a classroom. But as to whether it prepares people adequately for those times when they have to interact face-to-face, I am the first to express doubts.

Whenever someone says, “You can’t teach interpersonal skills online,” I get exasperated, mainly because such sceptics are partially right, but for the wrong reasons. The standard argument is that interpersonal communication is exclusively about shaking a hand and looking your counterpart in the eye. Those who truly believe that have a poor grasp of both interpersonal interaction and online learning. It’s not that I believe you can become proficient in all interpersonal skills through e-learning, but that I don’t believe you can become proficient through classroom learning either. You polish your skills in life, and a formal training course can at best give you some insights, provide some structure to your behaviour, and point you in the right direction.

You could argue that because people do such a big chunk of their communicating via e-mail, IM, texting, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, webinaring, and old-fashioned telephoning, there might be a separate set of skills that could be taught for such interaction. Indeed, there is much interest in, for example, e-mail etiquette courses. But aside from the particular eccentricities of specific media, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “online interpersonal skills.” If you are a skilled communicator, the medium you use is largely irrelevant. As is the medium in which you begin to learn those skills.


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