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High-context communications in a low-context virtual world

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With all the time you spend online, wouldn’t it be nice to communicate more in ways that didn’t leave you feeling as if you’d sold out or stooped to the lowest common denominator? Yes, I’m talking to you high-context communicators out there. How can you feel more authentic, real, in your virtual communications?

The word ‘communication’ is derived from the Latin word ‘communis’ which means to make ‘common’. Essentially, effective communications means we’re on the same page. And, we want to be on the same page if our intent is to prosper through collaboration. Virtual collaboration requires us to double down on the communication front. So much can go wrong when we communicate virtually.

In many ways, the virtual world is a low-context one; say hello to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Knowing this, how can you move the needle back and create more high-context forms of communication, to better get your message across and to be more authentic?

High-context virtual communications

When we’re in the same room with others, the success of our communication effort is largely linked to nonverbal cues we give off. These nonverbal cues, combined with the verbal or written word is what is meant by high context communication. This dynamic easily gets skewered in the online world. Working virtually often puts the squeeze on our full range of verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Fortunately, there are virtual ways to add back some of our lost communications capacity, both verbal and nonverbal. Here’s four of those ways:

1. Amplify your message. Add clarity to it. I don’t mean make your message louder, shriller. Rather, be clear about what you are trying to communicate. Clarity makes the signal stronger. We've all had emails or text messages that go unanswered for days. Mea culpa. Next time, be more clear; e.g., “If I don’t hear back from you by the end of Thursday, I will follow up by phone, on Friday.”

2. Signal more. As many high-context cues are lost in virtual communications, you can make up lost ground through message frequency. Regular, frequent communications also help mitigate the feedback delays that are inherent in many virtual communication channels. And remember to keep an emphasis on positive interactions. Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has measured the longitudinal impact of positive vs. negative interactions. It’s not even close - negative has way more impact. We need far more positive to overcome a negative. Remember, things can spiral out of control quickly in the online world, making it even more vital to create positive intereactions.

A little memory trick I use to remember the importance of amplifying and signaling more is AM-FM, a term I co-opted from the world of radio communications, in which AM-FM stands for Amplitude Modulation – Frequency Modulation. I’ve converted AM-FM to Amplify Message – Frequent Message. But use whatever works for you!

3. Add emotive language. Increasing our use of emotive language can come across as being more natural and authentic. With all the content that’s available through the Internet, appropriate emotive language can capture their attention, and most importantly, get your message across.

4. Add visuals. Sight is the most used human sense. Unless we are sight handicapped, 75% of all external stimuli we receive, we receive visually. Combining visual messages with verbal communication increases information retention, and reduces average meeting times. Don’t just tell me about the new program, show me it.

Adding images and video, and using emoticons, are all visual ways to better get your message across.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is we achieve more, and do more public good, through collaboration. Increasingly, that collaboration, and all the conversations that fuel it, takes place virtually. Gaining fluency in the language of virtual communications will help ensure your message gets delivered, as intended.

Ben Ziegler is a conflict management and collaboration specialist. He works as an independent mediator and consultant. He has extensive experience as a virtual facilitator, as an online mediator, facilitator of global virtual teams, and designing online collaborative processes for the BC government and nonprofit sectors. Previously he spent 14 years as a consultant in the high-tech sector. He has authored multiple e-books on collaboration, maintains a blog on collaboration-related topics, CollaborativeJourneys.com, and offers a self-paced e-learning course on virtual collaboration. A fan of vibrant neighbourhoods, Ben is active in a number of local nonprofit organizations.

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