Communicating with Compassion in the COVID-19 World

Why our digital workplaces create obstacles to effective communication


Christopher Westcott

2 years ago | 3 min read

Communicating is more important than ever. And yet, for many of us, the global pandemic has forced us to retreat into our living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens to do our work.

We’re learning that we can work more distributed and more digitally than ever before. But here’s the thing: we can’t fully replicate our in-person interactions.

Humans — that’s you and me — evolved to protect one another. Our fragile flesh is meaningless against most predators out there, and so we come together to out wit and out smart the challenges thrown our way.

To get there, we’ve learned to communicate in sophisticated ways using our words, our bodies, and our facial expressions. A subtle touch to nudge someone into attention; a hug or a smile to express empathy, love, or compassion; eye contact to let a person know they’re being heard.

The pandemic has taken this away from us in a time when we need to be communicating more clearly and compassionately than ever before.

Psychologists have known for years that only 7 percent of our communications derive from spoken words. The rest comes from our tone (38%) and body language (55%). And that makes a lot of sense because conveying information isn’t the sole reason we communicate; we communicate to express our personalities, showcase trust for one another, and express empathy and inclusion.

So, can video-conferencing tools facilitate this need for human connection that is expressed in such complicated yet natural ways? Probably not. Or at least not yet, and here’s why.

First, our brains attend to what is closest to us either physically or temporally. A face on the screen is less important than a face in the room. This is known as distance bias.

Second, it can be difficult to make eye contact with a gallery of people showing up on your screen or a camera that is off-center. Our eyes express a tremendous amount of emotion and are cues that we’re being heard or that our attention is needed.

And third, latency and connectivity issues may trigger more interruptions, transform a face into a Picasso painting, or stop the flow of conversations altogether.

Not only are we unable to showcase our body language to indicate a pause, we are also in a constant loop of apologies and awkward silences.

In the midst of a crisis, people feel alarmed, threatened, and uncertain. And with the current COVID-19 crisis, they might be feeling alone or removed from their colleagues.

Now more than ever we need to communicate with compassion, yet we don’t have the tools to do so. But all is not lost. Here are three tips to overcome these obstacles.

  • Emojis to the rescue. We’ve lost a lot of context by working remotely. Be sure to bring it back by over-communicating with digital “emoting” like emojis or GIFs. These days, emojis are available with a wide variety of personal subtleties, including different skin tones and gender options.
  • Amplify one-to-one communications. We all love to see the gallery of virtual faces around the table at our team meetings. That said, spend more time checking-in with your teams individually. Be sure that your camera is centered and you’re able to make eye contact.
  • Default to encouragement. We’re lacking the social cues and body language to communicate constructive criticism in a remote environment. As many of us are already feeling anxious and disconnected, that means “negative” feedback can miss wildly and, at its worst, be completely counterproductive. Over-communicate your encouragement by focusing on an individual’s strengths and small wins.

The global pandemic has taken much from us, including the largest portion of how we communicate and express compassion and empathy to others.

But it’s also given us a great opportunity to be more intentional in how we treat each other, knowing that we cannot fully replicate our face-to-face interactions.

Still, there is a lot we can do in the digital world at a time when we need each other more than ever.

Still, there is a lot we can do in the digital world at a time when we need each other more than ever. We can smile more, communicate more, and let people know they’re safe and you’re in it together.

This article was originally published by Christopher westcott on medium.


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Christopher Westcott







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