Nothing beats face to face (Guest commentary)

Virtual world ignores importance of non-verbal cues, which deepen understanding and build rapport

In a fast-paced, techno-charged era of e-mail, blogs, wikis and instant messages, one universal truth remains. Face-to-face is still the most preferred, productive and powerful communication medium. In fact, the more business professionals communicate electronically, the more pressing becomes the need for personal interaction.

That’s because, in face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us only partially from the words they use.

We get most of the message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal tone, pacing, facial expressions and body language. And we rely on immediate feedback — the instantaneous responses of others — to help us gauge how well our ideas are being accepted.

So potent is the nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, in face-to-face encounters the brain’s “mirror neurons” mimic not just behaviours, but sensations and feelings as well.

We were born with this innate capability. We may have spent years learning to read and write with various levels of mastery, but no one had to teach us to send and respond to nonverbal signals. In fact, our brains need and expect these more primitive and significant channels of information.

According to Thomas Lewis, an expert on the psychobiology of emotions, when we are denied these interpersonal cues and are forced to rely on the printed word alone, the brain struggles and real communication suffers.

Think of it this way: Technology may be a great facilitator for factual information, but when your communication has any emotional charge, a face-to-face meeting is still the best choice. It’s the only way others can note the alignment of your verbal and nonverbal messages and be convinced that your motives match your rhetoric.

This is especially true for an organization facing impending layoffs. That’s when leaders — especially those at the top of the organization — need to (literally) step up and be seen. They need to explain the reasons for the layoffs. They need to stay until the last question is answered. Most of all, they need to be seen showing they care.

There’s a scientific basis for this. According to recent research by the Center for Creative Leadership, the only statistically significant factor that distinguishes great leaders from mediocre leaders is caring. And caring is almost impossible to communicate electronically.

Leaders at all levels of an organization increase their effectiveness by knowing when to rely on technology and when it’s better to meet with someone. Remember this: A face-to-face meeting gives you the opportunity to put your point across with compassion, while being sensitive to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal reactions. With any sensitive issue, an e-mail or phone call may leave the recipient thinking you avoided dealing with them in person because you are indifferent and uncaring.

Face-to-face isn’t just important when delivering bad news. It is also key to making positive feedback more meaningful. A “thank you” e-mail is good, a hand-written note even better. But nothing beats having the boss walk up to you and express her appreciation in person.

When it comes to bonding virtual teams, there’s no substitution for getting people together. Even if it’s just one face-to-face meeting, the very fact you’ve given people the chance to get “up close and personal” goes a long way in sustaining a team spirit.

Another nonverbal component that comes solely with face-to-face encounters is touch. Usually considered to be the most primitive and essential form of communication, touch is so powerful and effective that clinical studies at Mayo Clinic show premature babies who are stroked grow 40 per cent faster than those who do not receive the same amount of touching.

And touch retains its power, even with adults in business settings. A study on handshakes by the Income Center for Trade Shows showed people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake hands with them.

We are programmed to feel closer to someone who’s touched us. The person who touches also feels more connected. It’s a compelling force and even momentary touching can create a human bond. A touch on the forearm that lasts a mere 1/40 of a second can make the receiver not only feel better but also see the giver as being kinder and warmer.

You just can’t get that from an e-mail.

Carol Kinsey Goman is a Berkeley, Calif.-based executive coach, speaker and author of The Nonverbal Advantage — Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. She can be reached at (510) 526-1727 or [email protected].

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