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asterisk white purpose, alignment, and accountability February 2020

Nonverbal Communication is Critical in a World of Written Text

Communication is a critical component of all businesses. Whether it’s internal communication with team members or external communication with customers and vendors, effective communication is one of the foundations of successful businesses. So, it’s no surprise that there is a constant flood of new apps to improve your organization’s communication.

For example, a common tool today for internal communication and collaboration with team members is Slack. The website describes the tool: “Slack gives your team the power and alignment you need to do your best work.” Another common tool is Microsoft Teams, which they describe: “Teams brings everything together in a shared workspace – letting you work from anywhere and making it easy for your team to chat, collaborate on files, and work with favorite apps.”

Who wouldn’t be excited about using one of these tools for better alignment and collaboration among their teams? Based on the adoption by many of my clients, these tools are becoming the standard way of doing business.

But similar to texting and email, both of these collaboration tools have one major flaw when it comes to actual communication: Their primary focus is on the written word. A famous study in 1972 by Albert Mehrabian analyzed how information is communicated in human interactions. His research found that the face conveyed 55%, the voice 38%, and words just 7% of the information during these exchanges. The conclusion was that the vast majority of information in face to face exchanges is delivered nonverbally. Unfortunately, tools like Slack, Teams, email, and text primarily use just words.

A common example of how the meaning can change by emphasizing different words in a sentence is the following: “I never said she stole my money.” Read that sentence seven times, each time putting an emphasis on a different word. You’ll quickly see that the meaning of the sentence changes dramatically. For example, if you emphasize “she” – “I never said she stole my money.” – then you are implying that your money was stolen, but not by her. But when you emphasize “my” – “I never said she stole my money.” – the sentence now implies the girl/woman did steal money, just not your money.

Simply changing the emphasis of one word in a sentence can completely change the meaning of the message. I have seen numerous communication breakdowns in organizations caused by the written word (email, Slack, Teams, texting) because of the missing tone and emphasis. As Albert Mehrabian pointed out, nonverbal communication is important. Very important indeed.

To balance out the benefits of these common “written word” tools like Slack, Teams, email, and text, you should incorporate these three communication habits into your culture:

  1. Important conversations, especially about potentially sensitive topics like performance, pay, or reprimands, should always be handled face-to-face. The ideal order of channel preference for these conversations is in-person, on a video call, and then by phone. For documentation purposes, it’s okay to follow up the verbal conversation with a written message. For example, I suggest all managers follow up one-on-one coaching sessions with a written summary of what was discussed.

  2. Leverage the video conferencing tools incorporated into Slack and Teams. Whenever possible, use video to communicate important topics. In work environments with remote team members, this has the added benefit of creating connection and community between team members. Most conference calls are better done as video conference calls to foster engagement and connection while also incorporating nonverbal communication.

  3. Use tools like DiSC and Myers-Briggs to better understand individual team members preferences and styles. I use Everything DiSC from Wiley with my clients to educate teams about the differences in communication styles. For example, a Dominant (D) style prefers direct, to-the-point, and results-oriented communications style while an Influence (i) style team member needs to feel a personal connection when communicating. Skipping the “small talk” will be appreciated by a D-style team member, but make it difficult for an i-style team member to hear your message.

Communication is critical to the success of any organization. Understanding the importance of nonverbal communication will help you implement and use these new collaboration apps more successfully. And remember, if you’re ever in doubt about getting your message across, do it in person.

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