The transition in recent years to a virtual/remote environment has changed the way we work and communicate. Workplace trends indicate that a remote or hybrid work environment is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Whether you are communicating with a client or a fellow employee over zoom or another virtual meeting space, recognizing and interpreting their nonverbal communications is now more critical than ever.
As you begin to hone your skills in picking up on nonverbal cues, it is important to keep five key principles in mind.
- Culture, age, gender and geographic location are critical. Gestures may mean very different things in different regions. Cultural and family norms also affect the way we react to nonverbal cues.
- Put things into context. If someone has their arms crossed it may just mean they are chilly. Before jumping to conclusions, put the conversation and the individual into the context of the topic, timing and other external influences.
- Look for a combination of signals. It is extremely difficult for our entire body to lie. People are capable of hiding their true intentions, but the real meaning often leaks through multiple channels.
- Incongruence can mean many things. When words and nonverbal cues don’t align, our natural instincts kick in. Psychological discomfort may indicate that you are the recipient of untruths, but that uneasy feeling may mean other things, as well. Refining one’s ability to become more attuned to nonverbal cues can increase one’s ability to be more in tune with your own instincts.
- Trust your intuition. Intuition is the unconscious processing of information (e.g. subtle nonverbal signals) manifested as physical feelings. Authenticity is key since people easily pick up on unauthentic and insincere communication. The more one’s awareness of the spoken and the unspoken, the more one’s own instincts are heightened.
Being in a virtual environment can present unique challenges regarding facial cues. Since our view is limited to the upper body only, we are not as distracted by other things that may be going on in the space.
The seven zones for nonverbal cues
To master the art of nonverbal communications, one must know where to look and the meaning of cues. While there are seven areas (zones) of the body that present a gateway to the unspoken meaning of a conversation in face-to-face situations, being in a virtual environment has limited our ability to see all zones. Therefore, the limited view makes it crucial to pay close attention to subtleties. Improving your overall communication skills starts with taking note of the individual cues we can see and hear, as well as interpreting all the cues collectively.
The face often gives the most obvious and powerful signals. It is extremely expressive, able to present countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike other zones greatly influenced by cultural norms, facial expressions are the most universal. Specifically, facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures.
Being in a virtual environment can present unique challenges regarding facial cues. Since our view is limited to the upper body only, we are not as distracted by other things that may be going on in the space. This forces us to pay more attention to the person we are talking to and see the attention that is being reciprocated to us as well. However, the virtual environment also presents unique challenges. For example, many systems display your own image, as well as that of the other participants. This may cause individuals to be self-conscious about their appearance on video or create challenges due to poor lighting or camera angle. Consequently, facial cues may be more impacted by the technology than the unspoken which means it is even more important to take the entire interaction into consideration.
The eyes can indicate thought processes or cognitive function. It is important not to read too much into a lack of eye contact since it is common for many people to glance away when they are thinking. Eyes can also perform a monitoring function. From interpersonal to public speaking situations, we can monitor our communication effectiveness by looking at others and monitoring their feedback.
In the virtual environment, the eyes are our key indicator as to the other person’s engagement. Since virtual meetings take place over one’s computer, it is easy to get distracted with incoming emails and other ongoing work projects. How often have you had another screen or program open during a video call? If you are in a virtual meeting with someone and you notice them looking at other parts of their screen it can signal distraction.
To improve your own nonverbal cues during virtual meetings, consider turning off your notifications for the duration of the conversation, close other programs, and put the meeting on full screen so as to limit your opportunity to find and be distracted by other things. Keep in mind that the virtual environment is much different than an in-person meeting. Even after all this time, many still do not have their camera properly situated much less know where to look. Another recommendation is to keep meetings short and schedule them at a time when distractions are less likely to occur – think early morning, lunchtime, or late afternoon.
Hands and gestures
In an in-person situation, hand movements and gestures convey an enormous amount of information. In fact, hand movements and gestures are the indicators most affected by cultural or geographic norms. However, in a virtual environment, the norm is to keep hand gestures to a minimum since the camera creates distortion when a hand nears the lens.
If you are in a virtual meeting with someone that does not involve a demonstration or screen sharing, a key indicator that they are doing something else and not giving you their full attention is if they begin typing or using their mouse. Confirming that the timing of the meeting still works for all participants is a great way to keep everyone engaged. Prepare for virtual meetings in the same way you would prepare for an in-person meeting. Clear your desk of distractions, close extraneous programs, and focus on the conversation.
Most times, a person’s posture conveys their overall attitude, confidence, and physical wellbeing. In a virtual environment, a person’s posture may also indicate the engagement level. In person, leaning or slumping indicates a lack of interest; however, in a virtual environment, comfort and time of day significantly impact posture. The more time an individual has spent sitting at a desk chair in a mobile environment, the more likely that posture is a function of physical discomfort and poor circulation than the topic at hand. Take breaks, stand up, and stretch, particularly before important conversations.
The position of your head tells a story and reflects intent or position. Your head position in a virtual meeting is another key indicator of interest and engagement in the conversation. A person who is holding their head up with their hand is not as awake and engaged as someone who has their arms at their side and head facing forward. When the head moves from a lowered position to straight or even slightly raised, this is a sign of sudden interest or a need for clarity. That movement indicates that the listener has been snapped back into the conversation. Use head movement as a cue to ask for questions or input from other participants.
There are many reasons why people do not always say what they mean. Understanding the entire meaning of any communication means not only listening to what is being said, but also ascertaining meaning from the unspoken. Many people fear that communication will suffer as a result of this relatively new virtual environment, but it does not have to have a negative impact. While a virtual environment does demand paying closer attention to small indicators and subtle movements, remember you are communicating to another human being. Giving consideration to time and length, as well as our own habits can bridge the virtual gap technology creates.
Christine Hollinden, CPSM is the principal and founder of Hollinden | inbound marketers + strategists headquartered out of Houston, Texas. In addition to the marketing strategy, inbound marketing, and marketing automation services, Christine coaches professionals on communication skills and utilizing their strengths to advance their careers.