One of the more awkward realities of the virtual age we live in is that you can’t lead a team effectively over the phone, or any other similar digital means.  That’s because it’s harder to pay attention, make decisions, analyze meaning, recognize patterns, and have sudden, deep, insightful ‘ah-has’ virtually.  All those things may happen face-to-face, but because the virtual world restricts our communications bandwidth, cutting out most of the body language we need to have nuanced insights into the important issues we deal with every day in a business context.

OK, you say, I get that email and audio conferences can’t convey much body language, but what about video; does video help?

And the answer is, yes, of course, video helps somewhat, but it brings its own challenges.  Why do most people find video such hard work?  Why do people tend to shout over video conferences even when everyone tells them they can hear just fine?

It turns out that your unconscious mind manages an incredible feat while you’re talking face to face with someone else.  We tend to move closer to people, ideas, and things we like, and away from people, ideas, and things we don’t like.  It’s a body language signal, in fact, that most people are not very good at disguising.  We rear back our heads, for example, when we are hit with an offensive smell, person, or idea.

Now, your unconscious mind not only notices visually that the people around you are moving back and forth as a gauge of their moods, but it also notices the small changes in the air caused by those motions.  When you’re watching someone on a video conference, your unconscious mind is looking for those breezy clues, not getting any, and therefore deciding that the other person is further away than they actually are.

Hence the shouting.  And hence also people feel that video calls are hard work.  They are to face-to-face communications as tin can telephones and string are to real phones.  (And remember that phones are hard work, too.)

And remember that video is a two-dimensional representation of a 3-D world, so we lose information almost as fast as we get in on video.  It’s harder to measure depth perception and judge reactions on a flat, two-dimensional screen rather than in person.

In fact, the digital world, much of it, is in effect two-dimensional when what our minds crave is three dimensions.  The audio stream is reduced.  The emotions are blocked or deracinated.  Video is two-dimensional and lacking essential sensory input.  Email and text lack tonal and audible clues to intent.  In system after system, in short, the bandwidth is reduced in ways that we can’t easily notice, and that have to do with emotion and the essential, core human thinking processes.

And that’s also in part why we find digital communications such hard work.  They feel like they should be easy, and being mostly frictionless, they are easier in some ways.  But in unconscious ways, in ways that we can’t easily appreciate, they are sorely lacking, and we find it hard to compensate as a result.

Remember that the next time you try to reach an important decision with the team on an audio conference. Better to bite the travel bullet and meet in person.

This blog post was adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, due out from Harvard in October.  You can pre-order it here.  And thank you!


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