Digital Body Language – What Leaders Need to Know

Just like a nod and a wink, your texts, emails, and social media posts send subtle and not so subtle cues to your readers that have an oversized impact on how they interpret your message. How you show up to a video conference sends strong signals to others as well – turning off your camera or disappearing without explanation leads others to interpret the void in ways that you couldn’t imagine but make sense to them.

Erica’s Dhawan’s book Digital Body Language: Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust & Connection, No Matter the Distance, takes a close look at why and how we need to adjust our digital messaging to make up for missing in-person context. Communication from a leader is often closely dissected the final interpretation by each recipient will have a major impact on how they respond to the communication. Their mood, engagement, and efficiency can all be affected. Therefore, leaders should pay close attention to Dhawan’s research and suggestions if they want to achieve the relationships and results they are aiming for.

For an overview of Dhawan’s insights you can listen to this podcast Where You May Be Provoking Anxiety. Here is an overview of some key points:

1. Excessive Brevity

Concise messages are more valuable and more difficult to write, however, a lack of information can cause anxiety for readers trying to read between the lines or extrapolating, and it can cause wasted resources doing the wrong work. A little bit more information can go a long way. Consider these tips.

  • Answer who, what when
  • Ask yourself if the message is clear
  • Is this the right channel? Do you need to call, or video or have a meeting?
  • Think about the time of the entire team – not just your time. Even if it takes you longer to get the right message across, the multiplier effect of leadership means that a good message will take less time overall (i.e., considering all the stakeholders)
  • Show gratitude (shows empathy and respect)

2. Be Explicit with Response Time Expectations

Don’t let people guess when they need to respond, be explicit or they, and you will be left hanging. Consider these thoughts.

  • To make it easy, and to create a culture of clarifying time expectations, your organization can create acronyms for time response like: 2H (2 hours), EOD (End of Day), 2D (2 days), ROM (reply on Monday – this allows recipients to enjoy their weekend)
  • If you will answer the message later, send a quick confirmation that you received the message and will meet the deadline
  • Send a quick response or summary of a discussion to ensure you are on the same page
  • Know your boundaries – when a no response is perfectly fine
  • Know when to switch the communication channel – text and email strings are not an efficient means to solve issues. Pick up the phone.
  • A rule of thumb is that the longer a response, summary or proposal takes, the greater the expectation.

3. Tone & Formality

This is a big one, and there are many subtleties from formal to informal, from aggressive and passive aggressive to unclear, from curt to wordy. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Passive Aggressive: Phrases like: as per my previous email; friendly reminder; per our conversation, (find more here: Passive Aggressive Phrases), can all be interpreted as passive aggressive. The assumption, of course may be incorrect, so try to assume the best and don’t respond when you are angry or frustrated. Try to respond with clarity to diffuse the situation.
  • Changing communication channels or asking someone to book an appointment through another person can be a major shift in tone.
  • Any shift in tone or formality can create anxiety:
    • Assume good intent
    • Pick up the phone if needed
    • Ask your colleagues how they interpret your digital body language so you can better understand how your style comes across
    • Ghosting or a delayed response can be a major a change in tone or formality

4. Details That Matter

  • Seemingly small choices like who we list first on emails can generate assumptions and mood or behavior changes from those we’re communicating to. Mix the order up on meeting agendas and regular emails to make it more equitable.
  • Know your biases. This is a tough one, but if you know your biases you will be able to respond more equitably to everyone. This means how quickly you respond, the tone you use and the amount of information you share.
  • In video calls, Digital Body Language is about how you make people feel, not how you look. Listen, engage, make space for others to speak up, and if you need to shut your camera off, let people know in advance.

There is a lot to consider when communicating as a leader, but there are plenty of resources to help you refine your skills. Keeping communication at the top of your continuous learning curve will serve you well in your leadership journey.

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