Audiences complain about it. Public speakers both fear and crave it. Companies spend a lot of money on it, and are always looking for ways to cut back. So why do we still keep getting together in meetings and conferences with all the travel, expense, and complaining that goes with it? Why communicate face to face?

The reason begins deep in the brain. The unconscious mind can process something like 11 million bits of information per second. At any given time, as much as 10 million of those bps can be connected to processing visual information. By contrast, our paltry conscious minds, those little thinking machines we’re so proud of, can only handle something like 40 bps. The unconscious mind is also where both emotions and decisions are processed. It’s where the real action is, for humans.

We’re just not consciously aware of most of that activity most of the time.

Now picture a worker in a cubicle. Gray walls, gray chair, gray computer. Gray hum of background noise all around. When she picks up the phone, the way in which the voice is processed over that instrument cuts out most of the emotion. That’s why telephone calls and webinars are so boring. No emotion.

Now stretch that picture out, day after day, month after month, year after year. Is it any wonder that 70 percent of your workers are either actively disengaged or not engaged according to the last Gallup poll?

Conferences, events and meetings are, for all their faults, a way to provide stimulations, re-engagement, and emotional interest for those workers.

Another recent study found that regular face-to-face communication cuts the risk of depression in adults by half. Phone and email don’t have the same effect.

Our unconscious minds need to get together so that they can find the emotional connections they crave. We humans are social beings. We don’t do well when deprived of our fellow humans.

Conferences, not cubicles, are the answer. And leave plenty of time for networking. If those various studies are true, then the real benefit of a conference is the chance for humans to connect. So don’t make the audience sit for hours in gray chairs, in the semi-dark, listening to boring speeches. Give them a chance to get together and network. That’s the other reason they call it happy hour.

Every communication is two conversations: the verbal one — the content — and the nonverbal one — the body language. Most of us tend to think of the first conversation, the content, as the important one. We worry a lot about what to say when we’re preparing for an important meeting, giving a big speech, or proposing marriage. And yet we rarely give as much thought to the second conversation: the body language.

As research into how the brain works grows in depth and sophistication, we’re coming to understand that what I’m calling the second conversation is actually more important in some ways than the first one.

Most of us think that we’re relatively rational beings. We get a thought, we decide to act on it, we instruct our bodies to move, and they do. So, for example, we wake up in the morning and think, “I need a cup of coffee.” Our brain then instructs our body to go to the kitchen, prepare the coffee, get the mug out of the kitchen cabinet, and drink ourselves into wakefulness.

But it doesn’t actually work that way much of the time. We get unconscious impulses for a lot of the important things that drive us: relationships, safety, emotional needs, fears, desires, meeting new people, seeing old friends, and so on. Our bodies immediately start to act on these impulses, and then, a bit later, we form a conscious thought about what we’re doing.

It’s as though our rational minds are explaining to ourselves after the fact why we’re doing something. That intent comes from somewhere deep in the brain, beneath where conscious thought originates, in the unconscious mind. And that intent governs a good deal of our supposedly rational lives.

We need to feed that unconscious mind, and we starve it at our peril as employers, as employees, as humans. The virtual world is boring for our unconscious minds. We need face to face.

2 Comments

  1. Very insightful post! I certainly agree that humans are not made to be behind the desk, on the phone, in front of the computer, etc. Thank you for the face-to-face reminder.

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