Today we spend much more time in online conversations that at any time in the past. Unfortunately, as we become more familiar with these new communication platforms, it is easy for us to forget the rules we adhered to in the ‘old’ communication platform. (Just to remind you, that is when two or more people met face-to-face, stood just a metre apart and, sometimes, even started with a handshake.) Those times taught us that good manners required us to start any conversation with rapport-building small talk. We’d enquire about how each other’s day was going, chat about the weather or some other topical issue; in short, we’d make a human to human connection before getting down to business.
In the online world, however, it’s as if the levels of formality have flipped:
- Our visual presentation has become more informal. C-Level negotiations are now conducted wearing shorts and thongs – and it seems that even the visible (upper-body) clothing has become more casual.
- Our conversation has become more formal. It’s as if we believe that on-line communication time must be more productive. You’ve lost the first ten minutes of your one hour meeting just getting everyone connected properly, so there’s no time for small talk!
This is where we can severely limit the quality of our communication and the chances of success of any negotiation. Northwestern University professor Janice Nadler found that the subtle, rapport-building behaviour that we naturally fall into in face-to-face communications generally gets missed when we appear as talking heads on a screen. Her research in conjunction with Michael Morris (Columbia Business School), Terri Kurtzberg (Rutgers Business School) and Leigh Thompson (Northwestern University) showed that spending just five minutes in small talk resulted in negotiations where participants were more cooperative, shared more information, made fewer threats, and developed more trust.
Recently, I was hosting a meeting with a number of attendees. As is typical practice, I saw the early arrivals go to the waiting room until, just before the official start time, I let them into the meeting. I then felt guilty when I compared this to a face-to-face situation. Would I leave early arrivals standing outside until start time? No, that would be rude. I’d invite them in, congratulate them for being early, start making connections. So, now, I remember my manners. I greet arrivals at my online meetings as they arrive, I allow the time needed for small talk. In short, I remember my manners – and make better online connections.
Kevin is an experienced conference speaker, workshop leader, facilitator and MC.