Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Digital communication is the new power skill: Erica Dhawan

The author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, who is also the founder and CEO of global consulting firm Cotential, on how to become better communicators and build stronger relationships in an increasingly digital work environment

Published: Sep 4, 2023 01:06:54 PM IST
Updated: Sep 4, 2023 01:14:31 PM IST

Digital communication is the new power skill: Erica DhawanErica Dhawan, Founder and CEO of global consulting firm Cotential
Smiles, pauses, posture, tone: In-person interactions are rich in non-verbal cues that bring clarity and build connection. But we are left totally ‘cue-less’ when screens divide us. Erica Dhawan, author of Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, tells us how to bridge this gap. Dhawan is the founder and CEO of global consulting firm Cotential. She is also the co-author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Edited excerpts from an interaction:

Q. Connection and trust are the building blocks of team work. To what extent are these getting compromised in virtual workspaces?
Every few months, things seem to get faster, leaving us no choice but to adapt to the newest normal. We grow more accepting of distractions and interruptions in technology and become more indifferent to the needs and emotions of colleagues. This digital disconnect leads to misinterpretation and new waves of organisational dysfunction—and one of the most overlooked reasons is the loss of non-verbal body cues. With more physical distance, fewer face-to-face interactions, and virtually no body language, it’s harder than ever to read emotions. It’s not that people don’t want to be empathetic—they just don’t know how to be with today’s tools.

But with the proper use of digital body language, you can learn to build trust and connection with your teammates.
Q. What are some of the tools that can foster collaboration?
Create moments that matter. As leaders, owning the moment—whether it means acknowledging good work, saying thank you, being flexible, working together around inconveniences, and covering for others when they need it—will go a long way in building trust. It’s less about a tool or technology and more about collaboration behavior.

  • Create social connections with virtual water cooler moments (virtual happy hours, lunch-and-learns, etc.)
  • Send personalised emails, or when welcomed by the team, inspire others with your creativity (newsletters, a picture with your team, etc.)
  • Show appreciation with regular shoutouts or moments of gratitude
  • Encourage yourself and others to take mental health breaks
Also read: Essential skills for remote leadership

Q. In your book, you explore the nuances of digital body language? Why is it important to learn this?
Body language has not disappeared in a virtual world–it has transformed. Digital body language are the cues and signals that have replaced the handshakes, head nods, and lean-ins in our modern marketplace.

Good leadership is about more than bending people to your standards or norms. It involves a willingness to engage across the different digital body language styles in your workplace. It’s actually not different from knowing three or four different languages or regional dialects.

 When establishing policies to bridge communication gap, gather feedback from digital natives and adapters. Then, focus on norms that best serve the task at hand. Questions that should be answered include:

  • How long is too long for an IM message?
  • Do we want to put a limit on the number of people to include in a group video call?
  • What should meeting agendas look like?
  • When (if ever) is it appropriate to text someone?
  • What is the expected response time for emails?

It’s also essential to have team champions who hold people accountable when practising these and even have a polite correction method.
On best practices to ensure meaningful inclusion
Acknowledge difference: Be observant about which team members are most comfortable on each platform, who are introverts who prefer to brainstorm on their own, and who are displaying digital cues that reveal feelings of being left out or undervalued.

Pass the microphone: One of the best things I learned from work with my clients this past year was the value in rotating meeting hosts. It adds character to our often monotonous routines.

Prioritise remote team members: If your team is half remote, you may forget to elicit input from those dialing-in for a meeting. I begin hybrid workshops by asking virtual participants to share their questions first so that everyone feels they have a right to speak up from the start. 

Also read: Virtual and hybrid teams with shared values perform better

Q. What do you mean when you say, “we do not walk the talk or talk the talk, we write the talk”?
As hybrid managers, we need to be able to understand and use both traditional and digital body language cues.

In traditional settings, we show we are actively listening by nodding our heads, making eye contact, and so on. In a digital world, we show this by using the “like” or “thumbs up” reaction on a text message or with a detailed comment or question.

Empathy in digital body language looks like quick response times, responses that answer all questions, not just the easy ones; positive emojis and message reactions when appropriate; and no interruptions during phone and video conferences.  The equivalent of physically moving closer to someone is moving the conversation to a more personal medium. For example, from email to a text, IM, or video call.

What about urgency? Online, we signal this by using all-caps, adding multiple exclamation points, sending rapid-fire tests, or switching to the mediums with the fastest response times like text and IM.

On clarity Vs brevity
Never confuse a brief message with a clear message. Receiving an email from your boss that reads, “we should talk,” could have multiple interpretations. One-word responses like “fine” and “sure” or multiple question marks can also cause uncertainty.
Here are three questions managers should ask to create a culture of clarity:

  • Am I clear enough about what I need?
  • Did I include the right people in the email?
  • Am I intentional about when and what I expect in response?  
One of my favorite ways is to create acronyms for the team. For example, NNTR on emails means “No Need to Respond”; 4H in subject lines means I need this in 4 hours, and 2D means I need it in two days.

Q. How can we tackle passive-aggression?
We’ve all felt it. That moment when we are called upon to interpret phrases that could be perfectly fine but tie our stomachs into knots anyway. What does she really mean in her text when she types, "Per my last email," or, "Just a gentle reminder...”
Here are two tips:

  • Avoid responding to messages or emails when you’re angry or frustrated.
  • Stay in t¬he place of reason. Assume good intent and show empathy and encouragement.

Q. What’s key to communicating across cultures?
If you are working across cultures, do some due diligence. Take some time to see your teammates’ work and understand how they like to connect. Then, when it’s time to reach out, you can lead with specific details to let them know you’re familiar with their culture and how they contribute to the team while recognizing their efforts and hard work from the first interaction. Then, go forward from there. With every scrap of detail, you begin to develop trust.

First, understand what drives cross-cultural pet peeves. Managing across cultures is about knowing what completely irritates others. Does she cringe at grammar mistakes? Does it irrationally annoy him when people send overly long emails? A lack of quick phone calls?

Second, ask your colleagues about their preferred digital communication style, based on the complexity and urgency of information. For example, does your colleague prefer to receive long emails covering many topics or individual emails for individual topics? Does your team prefer to be kept in the loop on everything you are working on (e.g., with daily or weekly update emails), or are they more hands-off? What topics are best to discuss on a video call, live meeting versus in an email? When is it acceptable to make a quick phone call to a colleague?

Communication, specifically via digital mediums, is no longer a ‘soft skill’—it is the new power skill that will define your success as a new hire.