Recently I was reviewing some research on popular TED talks that found that the most successful speakers used more hand gestures, tonal variety, and smiling than the less successful ones.  A lot more.  More than twice as much, in fact.  Those speakers were rated as more charismatic than the other speakers, and more popular.  What’s the common thread?

Emotion.  Lots of hand gestures, lots of tonal variety, and lots of smiling indicates that you’ve got a good deal of emotion invested in your talk.  And so we watch, because one of the ways that we measure the importance of your idea is how strongly you feel about it.  More emotion is more interesting.

In the half-virtual, half-face-to-face world we inhabit today, it’s much harder to detect the emotion in the emails, the texts, the phone calls, and even the cat videos we watch online.  Less emotion means less connection.  Less connection means more loneliness, disengagement, and isolation.

We are all implicated in this depressing new world.  We are active participants.  Sure, it’s the world we find ourselves in, and the one that has been built around us since WWII, but we are implicated as participants. Have you ever put a conference call on mute while talking to a colleague at your desk or while doing the dishes or checking Facebook? Why do you keep booking hour-long conference calls and expecting people to stay focused the whole time?

We’re implicated.  We are creating an epidemic of loneliness, disengagement, and isolation by the way we work with each other, and the way we act socially too.

At work, when we can’t see each other, we can’t rely on unconscious cues to let us know when the team is drifting and everyone needs a break. Virtual communication requires us to make an extra effort to be connected in human ways to our colleagues and to think through when and how we’re reaching people—is this email arriving right before my colleague is sitting down to dinner?—because it doesn’t happen naturally in the virtual space.

One of the cardinal virtues of email and its descendant, texting, was supposed to be that it was asynchronous, meaning I could send you my note in the middle of night when I was unable to sleep, and you could read it comfortably over your morning coffee. But mobile phones and always-connected means that, for most people most of the time, we are constantly being pinged by texts and emails and other forms of interruptions that demand a quick response. I’ve also noted that whereas in the past you could respond to an email, say, in a few days and still be considered polite, now you’ll get a follow-up email a few hours later if you don’t respond almost immediately.

We’re doing that to each other.

The failure to connect in real human terms goes both ways, and fundamentally, it comes from a lack of received emotion. Most of us have trouble judging emotional tone in written communications.  We need to make an extra effort to try to understand where our colleagues are coming from. For example, we might begin a conference call with a check-in that allows everyone a minute to talk about his or her immediate state of mind and working conditions. We need to become better able to label emotions quickly and easily, out loud, so that others can at least know how we’re feeling from the words we use.  And we need to add emotional tags into our various ways of communicating at work in order to begin to repair this emotional mess we’ve created around ourselves.

If this world of virtual connection is to work for humans, we have to figure out how to put the emotions back in.

This post is adapted from my new book, out October 30 from Harvard, Can You Hear Me?  See ordering information below.



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