Interpersonal Communication in the Age of Social Distancing: How Do We Create Closeness from a Distance?

This article is a translation of the article that first appeared on ynet.com, [Aug 4, 2020, תקשורת בין-אישית בעידן הריחוק החברתי: איך מייצרים קרבה מרחוק?]

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to get used to a new reality that exists, mostly, on the screen. As a result, the dynamics and communication between people have changed. How do you maintain closeness, intimacy and trust when the person in front of you is in a small square on a computer screen? Interpersonal communication experts, Barry Katz and Efrat Gazit, answer this question.

Conferences, lectures, school, job interviews, staff meetings, family dinners, doctors’ appointments and even parties: until recently, we couldn’t imagine them taking place on the computer screen or over the phone. Then came COVID-19, which shuffled the cards and brought Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms into our lives. We were skeptical at first. We had a hard time adjusting to technology, but today there’s no doubt that remote meetings are here to stay for the long term.

Six months in a culture of online meetings has given birth to one of the most prominent issues in interpersonal communication, even amongst professionals: How do you create intimacy, closeness and trust when the person in front of you is in a small square on the computer screen?

How do you create intimacy, closeness and trust when the person in front of you is in a small square on a computer screen? (Photo: GettyImages)

“First of all, we cannot and we must not compare a face-to-face meeting with an online meeting. The feedback and energy of the two are different”, Barry Katz emphasizes. He is the founder of the company named after him which runs training in interpersonal communication skills. “When we are in a room with people, there is an interaction, an energy exchange and an element of theatre that can’t occur when we are alone in a room in front of a computer screen.”

We can be the most fascinating and exciting people when standing in front of an audience, but this charm can disappear when we meet people online.

Katz explains that one of the problems with remote video meetings is that we try to conduct ourselves in the same way as we would face to face. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, and we leave the meeting feeling exhausted.

Barry Katz (Photo: Rami Zinger)

“In a face-to-face meeting, the brain looks for signals and body language to help it understand how to behave, and this is much more difficult in front of a screen.” Efrat Gazit agrees. She’s a professional workshop facilitator and has given many lectures on interpersonal communication in the past several months. “We don’t take into account the fact that we are away from each other and therefore, we don’t try to involve the people in front of us, and it’s tiring – both for us and the audience”.

So, what is the best way to fascinate and excite an audience? How can we create intimacy and convey trust and professionalism to the person sitting in front of us in a video meeting? Barry Katz and Efrat Gazit share some tips which, if implemented correctly, will make our online meetings a lot more successful:

Do You Even Need a Video Call?

“Studies show that video calls cause exhaustion,” Katz notes, and adds that a video call needn’t be the default choice for every meeting. It can also be an email, a text or a regular phone call. “People think that the meaning of a presentation is standing on a stage in front of an audience with slides in the background, but that’s not true. A presentation occurs every time we want to convey a message with a purpose, to get a ‘yes’ to something. There isn’t a day when we’re not presenting, conveying a message to someone, and it doesn’t have to be on a video call with slides in the background.”

The Art of Small Talk

In video calls, we tend to skip the small talk stage that happens naturally in a face-to-face meeting, which is a shame.

It is precisely this breaking the ice that can create intimacy with the audience and the participants. “We tend to see the presentation as sacred, but it’s only a tool.” says Gazit. “The real goal is to inspire the audience and make them trust us. Once we understand that our primary focus should be the audience, not the material, we can achieve more.”

“You can also incorporate small talk during the meeting through personal stories”, Katz suggests. “Adding personal stories to a conversation can make a big difference. It doesn’t have to be a long story. If you talk too much, you may lose the audience’s attention.”

Prove to Participants That You See Them

Small talk is not enough. To give the audience a sense of intimacy and closeness, the key is personal attention. Address the participants in the meeting. Call them by name, even if they haven’t turned on their camera. Take interest in their well-being and ask them questions.

Conferences, lectures, school, job interviews, staff meetings, family dinners, doctors’ appointments, and even parties. Zoom app. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Katz says that one of the most prominent areas in which personal attention is critical to building trust is remote therapy (telemedicine). “The question of how to conduct therapy remotely and make the patient feel close is a pressing issue when it comes to telemedicine. One of the first lessons we give to remote therapists is how to see the patient, and not only their information, and how to put into words what’s going to happen and how to reassure them.”

Convey Confidence Through the Screen

Our body language is also a part of the message we want to convey, even through the screen. In order to convey confidence and professionalism and get the audience’s attention, we suggest looking at the camera and not the screen. Although the screen mostly shows your facial area, it’s still important to combine hand gestures close to your body to emphasize the message.

Prove to participants that you see them.

Proper attire that maintains professionalism is also an important tool when it comes to conveying messages. Pajamas, which are an inseparable part of working from home, should not be worn on a video call. “One of the managers I worked with told me that before starting a video call, he gets dressed in a suit and puts on cologne,” says Katz. “His wife didn’t understand why he was wearing cologne, because who’s going to smell him through the screen? He told her that it’s not for the participants but for himself. It helps him get into the experience.”

The Power of Active Participation

One of the most common questions amongst presenters in online meetings is “How do I know that the person sitting on the other end of the screen is listening to me?” It’s very easy for people in remote meetings to go into “sleep mode”. So, in order to wake them up and stimulate them, speak slowly with short pauses that give participants the opportunity to speak. It’s best not to speak for more than ten minutes without taking a break.

Efrat Gazit (Photo: Rami Zinger)

A Lively Discussion Between the Participants

Instead of a monotonous monologue of one speaker, we should create what’s called “active participation”. It’s possible to create high levels of participation amongst the participants by using a variety of tools, such as integrating a chat in the video call, dividing the audience into smaller work and discussion groups (Breakout Rooms), sharing a whiteboard on Zoom that allows participants to write on the screen, or using interactive applications for polls and quizzes such as Mentimeter.

Katz and Gazit emphasize that it’s important not to overdo it with activities because it can be exhausting. “From time to time, you can set the activities and stimuli aside, turn off screen sharing, and only show your video full-screen. Variety in the meeting creates greater involvement, attention, and interest.”

Katz and Gazit conclude: “This pandemic has dictated a new reality, and fortunately, we have technology that allows us to continue almost as usual in our day-to-day lives. But we need to know how to work with this technology correctly and remember that at the end of the day, we’re standing in front of humans.”

In collaboration with Reboot Forum.

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