Do you struggle to build relationships virtually? You are not alone. In fact, Harvard Business Review confirms that building new relationships is especially difficult in a virtual world. While there’s no shortage of suggestions on clever rapport-builders, insightful questions, or engagement technology designed to make relationships grow more easily on-line, most of these attempts are mere band aids as they do not address this very basic fact:
Relationships require certain qualities to grow and flourish, regardless of whether you are communicating face-to-face or virtually. And many of these essential qualities are missing (or harder to observe) on virtual meetings and calls because they are often communicated non-verbally. Without these qualities, creating a relationship becomes a non-starter – no matter how witty your repartee.
To successfully create virtual relationships, you must understand which qualities are lost on video and find ways to express them actively in your virtual communications.
3 Essential Qualities for Relationships to Develop
Experts tend to agree that certain essential qualities, like being a great listener, exhibiting empathy, and trustworthiness, must be present for a relationship to develop. While many people express these qualities naturally when face-to-face, they often fail to adequately express them on video due to the constraints of the medium and/or the way the camera reads things. This results in misunderstandings, miscommunication, and missed opportunities for a relationship to take root.
Below are three essential relationship-building qualities and actions you can take to ensure they are being communicated naturally in your virtual meetings and calls.
1. Being a Great Listener.Have you ever been talking to someone at a party who was constantly scanning the room for someone more important to talk to? If so, you know exactly how it feels when you’re speaking on video while the other person is staring at their screen, and not their camera – where your eyes are. While intellectually, you may rationalize that the other person is looking at your image on their screen, emotionally it feels like they are distracted or simply not that into you. Logical or not, relationships are built on feelings, not logical arguments.
Experts claim that to build a relationship with someone in person you need to maintain eye contact about two-thirds of the time. On video (where more eye contact is of even greater importance due to the number of distractions available to your audience), most people are falling well short of that already inadequate goal.
In addition, many of the signs associated with listening that we use in person, e.g., those little verbal acknowledgments, like uh-huh, or mmhmm, or those small nonverbal signals, like the head nod, the raised eyebrows, or the encouraging smile, are often lost due to the limitations of technology or our lack of awareness on how we come across on camera.
Regardless of why, if people bother to speak up on virtual call and leave feeling unheard and unseen, they are unlikely to put much effort into your relationship.
How to Listen On-Camera:Look at the camera — especially when the other person is speaking. I know this is counter-intuitive, but to make someone feel seen and heard, you must look at the camera just as if you were looking into the other person’s eyes. Not their nose, their chin, or their shoes. Their eyes. While it may feel like you’re making eye contact when looking at the other person’s image on your screen, it doesn’t read as eye contact to your audience. And your excuse doesn’t change their experience.
Of course, knowing you need to make good eye contact and doing it are two different things. There wouldn’t be so much bad eye contact on video calls and meetings if it were easy! First, there is the matter of how to look at a camera. You can (and should) move people’s images around so that they line up as closely as possible with your camera, but likely it won’t be a perfect fit. Because of this, you’ll need to master the art of looking at the camera and “seeing” the other person in your mind’s eye. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Actors have been perfecting this technique for years. Once you master that, you can also learn how and when to read body language at the same time. (You can learn more about both those techniques in my book, new book Look Me in The Eye: Using Video to Build Relationships with Customers, Partners and Teams.)
2. Exhibiting Empathy.It’s frustrating to share something meaningful with another human being and not see an ounce of recognition on their face. Ultimately, it’s not enough to feel empathetic; you must be able to reflect back to the other person that you understand and care about what they’re saying in more than words.
A general lack of expression is frighteningly common in virtual communications. This is in part due to how media have trained us to slip into a more passive “receiving mode” when we sit in front of a screen. Most people show up for virtual calls and meetings with a typically blank demeanor. The resulting “Resting Business Face” is great for poker but useless for communicating thoughts or feelings.
In addition, some of the empathetic body language we use in person, like leaning forward or nodding, can take on a more aggressive meaning on video, causing our intentions to be misinterpreted.
How to Express Empathy or Emotion On-Camera: What is your face saying on video? Your face is the primary (and often exclusive) focal point for your audience. It takes up 80% of the virtual real estate. Not knowing what it’s communicating to your audience is operating in the dark. Record yourself and review (or ask a trusted but candid friend or peer to review it). Does your face match your words? If you turned off the sound would someone know how you felt? Most people are surprised to find that despite feeling deeply about another person’s situation, those feelings are not displayed on their screen.
If you’re like many business professionals, you may have spent years repressing your instincts to express yourself, resulting in a “disconnect” between your face and your feelings. But you can learn to ignite those expressions by retraining those atrophied expressive muscles with the right warm-up and energy-building exercises. Even naturally expressive people often have to amp up their energy on video to ensure their face matches their feelings. This is because the camera depletes much of the energy you send out when in person.
3. Trustworthiness. Establishing trust and credibility is the foundation of any relationship—both personal and business. While your credibility is likely no different in person than on video, your behavior in front of the camera can call that credibility into question. For example, research has found that we are more likely to trust a person who looks us directly in the eye.[i] With the shortage of eye contact taking place on video, it’s surprising that any trust is being built on virtual calls at all!
Much of the limited eye contact being made appears shifty as people jump from image to image on their screen. And shifty eyes are, of course, perceived to be a sign of guilt or suspicious behavior.
Another challenge to building trust on video is that most people don’t show their hands. Body language expert Allan Pease shows how open palm gestures send trust signals to other people’s brains, making them feel less threatened and more receptive in his popular TedX speech. Open hands indicate we aren’t hiding anything behind our back (or off-camera) and can be trusted. The tight headshot that most people adopt on video makes it difficult or awkward to include gestures. When people do gesture, they often use fast, quirky moves, which make them appear nervous or uncertain to those on the other side of the screen.
How to Express Trustworthiness On-Camera:
Besides making more direct eye contact with your audience, building trust means finding natural places to gesture and show your hands. In addition to credibility, gestures can also add emphasis, emotion, and meaning to your message. To properly gesture on-camera, you need to make sure you are framed correctly. A Medium Close-up (chest-level) is an ideal frame for most virtual calls and meetings. It gives your audience a clear view of your face and eyes and allows you to gesture more easily in frame.
You may have noticed that most hand movements on video quickly skate across the bottom of your screen or extend outside of the frame entirely. For gestures to be effective in a virtual world, you must learn to move effectively within the boundaries of your frame. This often requires raising your elbows and gesturing from a slightly elevated but more visible position. Practice this with your video on until you develop the muscle memory to “hit your mark” without needing to check your own image or think about it.
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[i] Helene Kreysa, Luise Kessler, and Stefan R. Schweinberger. “Direct Speaker Gaze Promotes Trust in Truth-Ambiguous Statements.” PLOS ONE 11, no. 9 (September 19, 2016). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162291.
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