You look at your opposite number on the negotiation team.  He’s sitting across the big wooden conference room table from you, and you’re waiting for him to say something.  Over the past four weeks, as the complicated negotiations have gone on, you’ve gotten to know him well.  You know his ‘tells’, his nearly invisible body language signs about what he’s really thinking underneath that impassive exterior.

Finally, he says it: “I think we should go ahead.”  But something’s nagging at you.  You know his body language well enough now to pick up on subtle discomfort.  You know that he’s not entirely satisfied with the deal.  So instead of saying, “Great, welcome aboard,” you pause. 

“Is there anything we haven’t talked about that is making you uncomfortable?”  You know there is; you want to give him a chance to voice his reservations.

And so he does.  And later on, when you’ve ironed out the problems that were indeed still there, just beneath the surface, he confesses that he was about to put the deal on hold and let it quietly die.  He’d grown to like you in the month you’d been negotiating together, and he was uncomfortable with sharing what seemed like relatively minor problems.  But added together, they became one big deal killer.  If you hadn’t given him the opening, he was ready to leave the table.  Your reading of his body language saved the day. 

What is that sensory feedback, and why is it so important to us humans?

There are two kinds of feedback, implicit and explicit.  The implicit kind is illustrated by the example just above.  It’s the sensory feedback that our unconscious minds give us 24/7, the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes of our world of experience.

Explicit feedback is the running commentary that drives individuals, teams and organizations getting things done from day to day.  In the real world, the two mix together in a way that usually feels effortless.  Our words are conveyed to other people – and theirs to us – with a welter of largely unconscious sensory data that automatically goes with the words.  We smile, frown, draw back, lean in, laugh, and cry.  Our senses are at work all the time creating both context and emotional meaning for our daily lives.

Put us in the virtual world and almost all these senses are deprived.  Now, when the multi-channel sensory system that is the brain is deprived of one or more of those senses, the neuroscientists tell us, it hates the vacuum.  So, the brain fills the empty channels with assumptions, memories, and fake data.  The result is, not surprisingly, all the misunderstandings we’re so familiar with in the virtual world.  The email that conveys a sarcastic tone the sender didn’t intend.  The phone conference that left everyone believing that the project was dead in the water.  The video conference that made you feel less comfortable about joining the team.  Trolling.  And so on.

Put us in the virtual world, in short, and we’re short-changed on the implicit feedback that is so important for getting us through our days.  In evolutionary terms, we humans are fragile creatures, and so have developed extraordinary prediction skills and pattern recognition abilities.  We put those two skills together to keep ourselves alive.  Take away the data that allows us to predict and to recognize, and we feel lost, unsafe, and confused.

That’s the virtual world in a nutshell.

This blog post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, due out from Harvard on October 30.  You can pre-order it here.  And thanks!

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