September 3, 2020

Dierschow: Relationships aren’t virtual but often need to be

Perhaps you’ve noticed that some relationships have drifted a bit over the recent months. The fact is that all connections will tend to wither if not tended to, and communication has become difficult.

For me at least, it seems like I’m doing a lot more communicating than I did last year. With end-to-end Zoom meetings and a deluge of emails, I certainly am having many conversations. But are relationships suffering?

Well, there are different levels of communication. Humans are inherently social animals, and we need regular interaction to be happy and get things done. Yes, even introverts.

The highest quality is face-to-face, physical conversation. It’s what we were designed for, so it’s the most powerful way to build relationships.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced us to alter these physical interactions. No handshakes, and peoples’ expressions are covered up with masks and their voices muffled. This matters.

So many of us have switched to the next best, video calls over Skype or Zoom or Teams or whatever. We’re usually seeing just head and shoulders, yes, but at least we can pick up some of the nonverbal signals.

Below that would be phone calls. We don’t have the ability to read facial expressions, and most of us aren’t trained to pick up on other nonverbal signals. So we’re now missing about 75% of the information.

Since it can be difficult to reach people on the phone these days, we rely on voice mail. Now we’re also missing the immediate reaction of the other person, often not even trusting that they received the message at all.

Then, in the pursuit of efficiency, we use messaging and emails. These entirely change the nature of a conversation. We’re often not using them as back-and-forth interaction, but as one-way “get back to me when you have a chance” messages. Now we’re not only missing all nonverbal signals, but all voice inflection as well. Misunderstandings are rampant because we’re missing over 90% of the information.

Of course, I have to mention social media in this context. We often change one-to-one conversations with group interactions, where emotional reactions overtake thoughtful content. It’s a different beast.

When I was in a managerial role, I learned that the quality of a relationship depended directly on the richness of our communication methods. I made it a principle to always meet every new employee face-to-face on their home turf, following up with voice calls on a regular basis in addition to emails addressing work progress. This was before we could afford video calls at each person’s desk.

When addressing an emotionally charged issue such as negative feedback or resolving conflict, face-to-face or video is always preferred. It’s critical for everyone to have as rich a communication as possible in these situations.

So how do we deal with this during a pandemic? Well, the same principles apply; we just have some constraints to work around.

First, use the richest form of face-to-face real-time conversation, which makes sense. For many people this is now video chats, so take advantage of them. Anyone with an internet connection has this immediately accessible.

If it’s important to have team members develop relationships with each other, make this rich contact available to all. Have some group meetings that are NOT about getting work tasks done, where people can interact as real humans. Perhaps you can even have an appropriately distanced team outing in the park or other large space.

Yes, it’s not the ideal. I get that. But this is how you maintain teamwork and retain employees during these tough times.

Remember that emotionally charged issues should use the richest form of communication available. Physical presence is ideal, but video chats are fairly close.

And also remember that it’s not all about just getting work done. Perhaps your employees are more worried about the threat of family illness, kids without childcare, and shaky financials

It’s what humans need.

Carl Dierschow is a Small Fish Business Coach based in Fort Collins, specializing in companies committed to improving society and the world. His website is

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