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Communicating virtually, with real-world presence

Communicating virtually relies on human skills that need more than a push of a button. After you’ve logged in, clicked the link and joined the virtual room, it helps to know how to develop the personal connection that the tech is there to serve. Distance doesn’t make that easy. But by keeping in mind a few useful thoughts, you’ll be able to make tech work for you rather than the other way around.

According to global consultants McKinsey, “organizations are clear that post pandemic working will be hybrid.” With the ongoing commitment to remote working, communication is evolving. Leaders and employers will need to adapt accordingly.

When participants join a virtual meeting from any part of the world, you can’t always rely on body language or eye contact to develop a connection. What to you might be familiar phrases, or safe assumptions, to someone else might be cause for misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, the world is smaller, or at least more plugged in, than it was a couple of years ago. As testing as virtual meetings can be, there are also advantages and opportunities. Our Learnflix eLearning course on Communicating Virtually covers four of the most business-critical elements of working remotely:

1.  Pros and cons of virtual teams

Remote working has its advantages. A global team can have a 24/7 presence and include people with local knowledge and an understanding of cultural perspectives, skills that can be especially useful in problem-solving.

Challenges may come in working with people you’ve never met, or whose communication style differs greatly from yours. It can feel as if the tech has taken over, with participants using slow broadband connections or joining a meeting via a combination of camera, text and audio options.

To offset potential difficulties, you need a powerful virtual presence that works internationally.

2. Meeting the extra demands

How do you develop virtual presence? Imagine you’re with someone in a room but there’s a tinted glass wall in the middle. You can see and hear them on the other side, but everything is a little strained. In treating them as you normally would, you wouldn’t do something else while they’re talking to you. You might emphasise your words and actions to be sure you’re understood. Virtual meetings are the same. You should:

  • Use positive body language and gestures and look people in the eye.
  • Speak concisely and with energy.
  • Choose your words carefully.
  • Remember that you’re talking to another human being.
  • Give your full attention, resist the temptation to answer emails.

In a virtual meeting there can be less feedback than in face-to-face chat, it can be very hard to gauge what the other person is really thinking. To compensate, you need to adapt your style.

  • Solicit feedback, rather than waiting for it.
  • Ask questions in order to gain information and to build the relationship.

3. Virtual Communication

In communicating virtually, the secret is to be present – which might sound like a contradiction in terms. Small adjustments can help you stay switched on.

Posture has an immediate effect on the voice and energy of the speaker, sit up rather than slumping, relax your shoulders and neck. Warm your voice up a little before you speak. And a smile will always help you achieve a brighter tone of voice.

Follow the ‘Purpose, People, Practise’ model to help you stay on track when preparing and delivering your message. Know what you want to achieve, be clear about your key information. Then, think about the people you’re talking to. What do they need to know?

4. Virtual meetings

Because of the additional energy required in managing virtual presence, online meetings are tiring. Teams are fatigued by excessive online discussions. Meetings should only be held when necessary and should be driven by a clear agenda with specific objectives. So, when should you meet? When information needs to flow in more than one direction and when you need the feedback of all participants.

Ultimately, communicating virtually is not the same as face-to-face. The pros and cons of remote teams connecting through tech are complex, but the opportunities outweigh the challenges. In communicating virtually, connectivity should be an occasional tech issue not a frequent people problem. With a little practice you can smooth away scope for misunderstanding and enjoy the greater rewards that come with stronger working relationships.

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Critical thinking superheroes untangle lines of thought

When you need superhero skills, and your cape is in the wash, critical thinking is your best alternative. Whether you’re looking for that killer line in a difficult conversation, confidence when working remotely or clarity in a tricky relationship at work, critical thinking skills can get you a lot further than wearing your pants over your trousers.

‘Critical’ in this case is not about ‘critically important’. It’s about acting as your own critic, assessing your line of thought and making it as strong and robust as possible. Once you get into a habit of watertight thinking, you’re unassailable – much like a superhero.

When we make hasty decisions or get caught in a tough conversation, we might do or say something without thinking. We stray into pitfalls, doing or saying things that we might later regret. At work, this can be costly. By thinking critically, you can shine a light on the pitfalls, spot them in advance and find a way round them, eventually doing so by habit. At that point it becomes easier to see them in other people’s line of thought.

Problems in thinking come in all shapes and sizes, though they’re usually known as fallacies and biases. In our eLearning Learnflix course on Critical Thinking, we identify the more common examples. You’ll probably be familiar with some of them already.

Recognising fallacies

An easy example is the circular argument fallacy. When Anna’s manager says she can’t be promoted to management level because she is not at that level yet, this argument is punctured by the spiky demands of logic. Logic and reason are difficult to get past, together they’re effectively the forcefield on which critical thinking depends.

A conclusion in a conversation – no matter how loudly it’s presented – must rely on a logical, reasoned argument. In the example above, the argument is not rational, it’s circular. The manager’s objection, if unsupported by anything else, is no reason to stop the promotion.

The manager might claim instead that Anna isn’t management level because she has dark hair or likes football. Targeting Anna for who she is rather than the skills she possesses (or lacks) is an attack on her as a person which might stem from more deep-seated biases, as explained below. Again, it’s no reason to stop her promotion. In fact, this is the ad hominem fallacy (from the Latin for ‘to the person’) and is also vulnerable to logic.

Other fallacious claims include the false suggestion that Anna doesn’t really want to be promoted at all. Falsely stating a position like this is known as the straw man fallacy (from the straw targets bayoneted by soldiers in training, a poor representation of people in battle). Other fallacies relate to probability. Anna might feel that whether she gets the job will come down to factors and events, past and present, that in truth are unrelated.

Unpicking biases

Fallacious thinking goes hand in hand with claims that also veer away from reasoned argument, for example biases. Fallacious conclusions stem from disjointed thinking. Biases on the other hand are shaped by more deeply held opinions or assumptions. They tend to prop up conclusions that are unsupported by a reasoned way of thought.

Anna’s manager might believe she hasn’t done much work at a senior level. This might erroneously be explained by something that the boss is biased about (perceived flaws in Anna’s background or personality, for example) – rather than the simple fact of lack of opportunity. This is an example of the fundamental attribution error.

If Anna’s manager were told about this error, she might still try to win the argument by pointing to evidence of Anna’s imagined flaws. But by looking for things she already imagines, the manager is simply confirming only what she wants to believe. Confirmation bias prevents her seeing the wider truth. As far as she’s concerned, Anna’s never going to be promoted – at least not by her. And so she doesn’t promote Anna, in a self-fulfilling prophecy (…another form of bias).

By seeing when fallacies and biases are present, it becomes easier to deflate them – or ask for help from others in doing so. Critical thinking can give you these skills. It can help you get round the flawed thinking of others by strengthening your own reasoned arguments. And that makes critical thinking a great superpower to keep in your mental armory.






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Communicating cross-culturally by building rapport

As I write, England is dragging itself back to work on a wet Monday morning after last night’s bruising penalty shoot-out in the final of Euro 2020. England’s defeat wasn’t down to early onset lethargy, as has dogged games in years gone by. The team has much to be proud of, their actions were applauded by millions. By taking a knee, for example, they did much to spread the word against racism, communicating cross-culturally via one small gesture in an international arena. 

In business, the ability to communicate cross-culturally helps teams work together more easily regardless of geography. It smooths relationships with international business partners and helps you speak the language of clients even when you don’t speak their language. These skills have never been more important than today.

The pandemic has broken down geographical barriers and speeded the transition towards new ways of working. There’s less international travel. But with the meteoric rise in virtual meetings, working cross-culturally has become routine procedure.

Cultural models

Communicating virtually brings its own set of challenges, even when speaking to someone you’re familiar with. Without physical presence, we rely instead on greater clarity, sharper emphasis, more patience in conversations. In communicating cross-culturally, we need to be aware of unfamiliar expectations and etiquette.

One way of getting to grips with a different culture is to understand it in comparison with your own. For example, the anthropologist Edward Hall suggested that cultures fall into one of two categories. In some, communication relies on knowledge known in advance, for example about a person’s background and manner. These places are known as ‘high context’. Others, where someone must say everything that needs to be said if they want to be understood, are described as ‘low context’.

Alternatively, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede identified a set of values that all cultures respond to, each in their own way. By comparing these responses, we can more easily see how one culture differs from another. Understanding cultures in detail in this way can give valuable insights into how we might approach a business relationship in an unfamiliar country.

The virtual world has brought us closer

In describing a national culture, Hofstede looked at six values – which he called ‘dimensions’, these are: power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity versus femininity, long-term orientation versus short-term and indulgence versus restraint.

For example, the US, Australia and the UK particularly reward individualism, whereas Hong Kong, Serbia, Malaysia and Portugal favour a more collectivist approach to managing projects and relationships. Indulgence scores are highest in Latin America, parts of Africa, the Anglo world and Nordic Europe; however East Asia and Eastern Europe are more likely to favour restraint.

The virtual world might bring us closer together but it doesn’t wipe away the cultural differences that populations are proud to hold on to. Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory flags up these differences so they don’t trip us up when we’re building international relationships or seeking to better understand colleagues from other cultures.

Step-by-step practical advice

Our eLearning Learnflix course on Communicating Cross-Culturally gives you step-by-step practical advice on how to better understand different cultures. Cultural models are broken down and explained, giving you an edge in managing international relationships in person and online.

The course focuses on four key areas:

Intercultural Communication 1   In the Cultural Learning Cycle, you’ll learn how to recognise, research, relate and reflect on how to narrow the gap between your own global communication challenges and the outcomes you’re looking for.

Intercultural Communication 2    Two different cultural models within the workplace – High Context / Low Context and Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions – will give you the tools to understand the subtle but crucial differences between cultures.

Virtual Communication Essentials    Being present; plain language and message structure; using your voice effectively (range, variety, energy) – how to bring clarity to your message.

Running Effective Virtual Meetings  Effective meetings – the elements; agendas and chairing; managing different behaviours; action planning; responding to the unexpected.

In today’s post-pandemic world, where more jobs are performed remotely, virtual communication is an accepted norm. Not being in the room means there’s plenty of potential for cross-cultural misunderstanding. We can’t all be Gareth Southgate. But learning to build rapport at an international level is an open goal we can’t ignore.


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Biden bolsters commitment to diversity and inclusion

In the US, diversity and inclusion are once again being taken seriously at the highest levels. Over the last four years, conscious acts and unconscious biases all too often fuelled existing tensions, in America and beyond. Donald Trump’s presidency signalled to polarised populations everywhere that inequality was acceptable. Not any more.

A spring breeze is blowing. Its touch was first felt during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. It was reinvigorated by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris moving into the White House in January, and by America’s Black History Month in February. Now, as vaccines begin to have an impact and businesses are able to reinvest, governments can reopen economies and we can embrace the heartfelt change now knocking at the door.

Change comes at all levels. In the White House, Biden is already making good on his commitment to diversity and inclusion. In his first week in office, he signed four executive orders aimed at curbing discrimination against racial minorities. He’s reinstated diversity and inclusion training for federal employees and contractors – training Trump had banned.

What can the rest of us do? Personally, I’m listening to Gene. With a smile that can fill a room, and a heart to match, Gene Douglas, a consultant trainer in our New York office, marked America’s Black History Month with a moving tribute to his father, Eugene B. Douglas (1935 – 2018). Born in Rockwall, Texas, Eugene B. Douglas grew up at a time when he was restricted by the Jim Crow laws of a nation he loved nonetheless. Turning down a college scholarship in favour of joining the army, he served his country for 22 years.

I mentioned to Gene that there have been questions on who’s allowed to express an opinion and who’s not. It’s been said online that ‘if you’re white, pass the mic’, which would rule me out. There’s also been discussion on a capital B in Black and a lower case w in white. Capital B recognises systemic inequality and the need for long-lasting change, it’s a matter of identity, as supported by trusted media style guides such as the Associated Press.

Understanding Conscious Bias

Amid these discussions, there is renewed focus on managing unconscious biases.

Our Learnflix Diversity and Inclusion course breaks unconscious bias into 3 themes:

1. What is Unconscious Bias?

  • Unconscious bias is an automatic response leading to quick judgements and assessments of people and scenarios. It includes:
  • The Affinity Bias – where we seek to associate with those we are comfortable with.
  • The Halo Effect – where beliefs about what is ‘good’ are accepted without just cause.
  • Confirmation Bias – interpreting something in a way that confirms our prior beliefs.
  • Conformity – the urge to reject choices that diverge from our group’s usual beliefs.

2. How it Changes You

  • Privilege. Before you can be a fully inclusive leader, you must be absolutely frank with yourself about the advantages or disadvantages you’ve faced in your own life.
  • Micro-aggressions. These are brief, everyday exchanges that subtly demean an individual, group, society or culture.
  • The influence of in-group. We’re more likely to have positive views towards a member of a group we think we belong to, than towards a perceived ‘outsider’.
  • The influence of out-group. An unconscious view of everybody outside your in-group, leading you to perceive outsiders in a negative light.

3. What Can We Do?

  • Reflect on your inner voice. It’s important that we’re open and inclusive as a leader of others, and vital that we’re tolerant of our own failings.
  • Look around you. Diversity is an immensely important and challenging issue within business. Solutions start with your actions.
  • Raise awareness. The more conscious our decision-making, the more possibilities we’ll have to be genuinely inclusive as leaders and as people.

In discussing such issues with Gene, he suggested I ‘write the truth and write how you feel’. Normally, those are easy things to do. But unconscious bias, grammatical shifts and changing times can be tricky waters to navigate. In the end I just listened to Gene.