With increasing numbers of people working from home and self-isolating due to the Coronavirus, the ability to influence people face to face is greatly reduced. Some people will be comfortable carrying out all their interactions remotely but not everyone is. Whether you are dealing with your clients, other people external to your organisation or internally, there is likely to be some impact on how you work.
Here are a few simple things to think about if either you, or the person you are trying to influence, is new to remote working or their team has been impacted by the virus:
Channels of Communication
When we communicate face to face we pick up on all the non-verbal cues from the other person. These non-verbal channels of communication include their tone of voice, the emotions and facial expressions they display and the additional information their hands convey. When we interact remotely we begin to lose these channels. A video call will often lose everything except the person's face, a voice call loses everything except the voice and text based communication such as email loses all of the additional context.
- Try to maximise the channels of non-verbal communication available to you and the other person where possible. This is particularly important when the discussion might be nuanced or has the potential to be emotive. When video conferencing, try to make the field of view big enough that the other person can see your hands.
- Some people are uncomfortable using technology such as video conferencing. You can put people at ease by recognising the awkwardness at the beginning of a call or to acknowledge that you don't enjoy this form of communication either.
- Finding out whether the other person is caring for other people in their home at the same time as the call, shows understanding and can put the other person at ease at the beginning of the call. People may be feeling uncomfortable because they are waiting for their child to make an unexpected arrival in the middle of the call. One of my colleagues had a call interrupted recently when his dog accidentally unplugged something - this was turned into a positive rapport building conversation rather than an embarrassing incident.
Listening & Elicitation
Conversation is a turn based form of communication and remote conversation creates some issues here. Usually we pick up on when it is our turn to speak from the non-verbal cues of the other person. Even with video calls this is more difficult to do. Key aspects of listening and elicitation can help us get over this issue and reduce the awkward stop-start conversations that can happen when we communicate remotely.
- If you are trying to understand an issue that the other person has, then start with tell, explain or describe. For example, "Describe why X isn't working for you." This is good practice anyway as it encourages a narrative response but works particularly well during remote communication. The narrative response is likely to lead to more information coming from the other person than a series of stop-start questions where it is never quite clear whose turn it is to talk.
- Paraphrasing and summaries are a useful use of your turn. In paraphrasing, we consolidate what someone has said and play it back to them in our own way. When we summarise, we playback specific pieces of information to the other person. Both demonstrate that we have heard and understood what the other person has said and both encourage elaboration from the other person on the information we have fed back.
- Taking responsibility for a breakdown in communication encourages the other person to continue talking and rephrase what they said in a different way. "I'm sorry I didn't quite understand what you meant there" is better than "Can you go over that again?"
Our behaviour is driven by what we desire and by what we fear. Any change to a situation can create new threats and unplanned homeworking is no exception. The obvious threats here are those presented by the virus but other fears will also appear which can impact on what you are trying to achieve.
People might not have ready access to the information which they would usually have going into the interaction with you. This might be nothing to do with them but could be because another co-worker is unwell or just more general disruption. This can cause a variety of fears amongst people - some may fear loss of status from not being in full control, others might be feeling the fear of disorder. Identifying the specific fear might be difficult but generally recognising that those you interact with are facing a changing situation where there may be increased confusion is important.
In other situations people may be covering for co-workers who are unwell or unavailable and may be overloaded. Here, the fears may be concerns over criticism or failure. Recognising and acknowledging someone's reduced capacity or the fact that they are operating at a higher level to the one they usually do shows empathy and efforts on your part to make things as easy for the other person as possible.
A sense of unity can be a powerful force when trying to influence an outcome and shared challenges often create this feeling. Discussing the shared challenges that you are all facing can be a good way of overcoming barriers or issues which existed previously.
One other advantage of enforced homeworking is that people have greater control over their time. This means that you can create time for planning for interactions which you might not previously have had. Thinking about what you are going to try to achieve and how you will do it is almost invariably a good investment.
Just about everything that we have covered here is good practice at all times. For those unused to homeworking or to those interacting with people who are, these simple reminders will reduce the impacts of the situation and can be turned into positives.