Digital Empathy: The New Body Language in a Virtual World

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Much of the communication we engage in today is in typed or written form. Listening has been replaced by viewing text on a screen. Without additional information like eye contact, tone of voice, or body language to sort out meaning, written communication, particularly when adding to the mix the speed and immediacy of emails and texts, takes on additional importance. The added complexity of multicultural environments makes clarity in written communication even more of a challenge. Carefully reading and writing messages become the new body language and is essential if you want to succeed in a virtual world.

Pardon the interruptions: attention span and technology

The average person spends six hours looking at computer or mobile phone screens every day. Screens that often display information designed to grab our attention and hold it for as long as possible. In the case of smartphones, some experts say it’s like walking around with a slot machine in our pockets because many mobile and web applications are designed to provide us with rewards in the form of a constant flow of notifications, reactions, and new information to keep us coming back for more. Like playing a slot machine, the possibility that something good may await us is too strong to resist.

The rise of remote work contributes to the information overload generated by our devices. Many people are spending more of their working hours connected to colleagues virtually, which means more hours of screen time.

The end of focus

Even before the rise of remote work, information overload was already robbing us of our ability to focus. Our attention span for digital tasks is now reduced to just 40 seconds before we switch to another task or change focus to something else that’s begging to be noticed, according to research.

So how do we improve the chances of our communication getting the attention it deserves in the flood of information bombarding most users? And how can we ensure that our digital communication is as effective as in-person communication?

The new digital body language: reading and writing carefully

The average office worker receives and sends well over one hundred emails per day. Most people surveyed experience poor digital communication at work and it costs them an estimated four hours of lost time per week. With the rapid shift to remote or hybrid work, how we communicate virtually has become critical to our ability to get things done.

How do you score in “digital empathy”?

Empathy is the human emotion that allows us to see the world from someone else’s perspective. It means trying to understand what’s important to that person and why and the factors that influence them at a given moment. In a nutshell, it’s about putting the recipient of your message at the core of what and how you communicate rather than putting your needs and point of view first.

Your empathy in person may be great but what about your “digital empathy”? Do you multitask during video calls or keep your camera off when other people have theirs on? Are your emails too short? Do you explain the purpose of a meeting when you invite someone or include an agenda with the invite? Email is a great place to start cultivating digital empathy.

Email: slow down to be more effective

Before you compose an email, take a minute to ask yourself a few questions such as how much information the recipient already has. Will the message arrive when the recipient has time to pay attention to it? Does this person share my view on the subject at hand, or does she see things differently? The answers may well change how you word your message and improve the chances it will be read and understood.

Tips on how to improve your use of email:

  • Be considerate. Don’t put the purpose of your email in the last sentence. Be clear about why you are writing at the beginning of the message rather than at the end.
  • What time is it? Use “schedule send” to make sure your message arrives during the recipient’s working hours. As well as being polite, this also reinforces the message that we respect people’s right to disconnect when not at work.
  • Don’t confuse a brief message with a clear message. The pressure to respond quickly means we sometimes leave out the context needed for our message to be understood.
  • Are you sending an email to a large group and want to avoid replies being sent to everyone when someone inadvertently selects “Reply all”? Try putting the entire group in blind copy, or BCC. That way, only you receive replies, and you save the rest of the group from multiple interruptions.
  • Put some thought into your subject line. What’s the most important piece of information you want the recipient to take away from your message? Consider whether that information or a hint of it can be included in the subject line. Is the purpose of your message to delay or postpone a meeting? Consider putting that in the subject line to save recipients’ time.

Mastering digital communication goes beyond well-written texts and emails. To ensure that we come across as well virtually as we do in person, paying attention to etiquette for video conferences can also be critical. The world of work is changing rapidly. Stay tuned to our blog for more tips and trends on how to keep up.

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