Why and how you want to create “digital body language” rules of the road

by | Oct 10, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

Are you a digital adapter, digital native, resister, a combo, or something in between?

Communication mishaps in the workplace are frequent among and even within these groups. It’s not bad intent. We generally have good intentions; instead, it’s hard these days for senders to deliver clear messages and recipients to interpret them.

As I frequently say, “The road to good intentions is paved with hell.” And this hell is often represented by two numbers: 1 and 0.

Yes, digital communication delivered through electronic technology is often misunderstood even though it’s become the mainstay of how we interact with each other at work, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

Email remains the most common form digital communication. According to the Radicati Group, about 4.1 billion email users worldwide are sending 319.6 billion messages a day. This technology market research firm also estimates that about 70% of all communication among business teams is digital, including email, video conferencing, texting, group chat, etc.  

As the number of digital communication options continues to increase, we’re not taking the time to consider all the challenges we face in using them well.

Erica Dhawan, the author of the valuable new book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance, has come to the rescue.

In her book, Dhawan emphasizes that we don’t yet have clear rules around digital communication, which contributes to our struggles. Plus, we’re still not used to the absence of clear non-verbal cues in digital communication, especially the lack of body language. That makes it really hard to figure out the emotion and other nuances as we communicate. As a result, people perceive lack of empathy in others when communicating digitally.

To help us cope and be clearer with each other, Dhawan uses her book to define “digital body language,” explain what it means, and provide four laws to follow – all helpful in navigating the digital terrain.

From Dhawan’s perspective, digital body language offers a systematic approach to “understanding the signs of the digital world just as we interpret those of the physical world.”

Granted, there are many interpretations of the physical world. So it’s not surprising that we don’t yet have a clear definition of how best to interact in the digital world. That’s why her three descriptions of what good digital body language looks like in action are so important. They are:

  • “Never assuming that our own digital habits (e.g., answering every email we get within 30 seconds, or never listening to our voicemails) are shared by everyone else.”
  • “Taking a few extra seconds to ask ourself whether our sentences, choice of words, or even punctuation can be misinterpreted.”
  • “Being hyperconscious of the signals and cues we send out, constantly checking in with others and learning along the way.”

Then, Dhawan layers on her four laws of digital body language, which are:

  1. Value visibly. This means being attentive and aware of others, while also explicitly communicating that “I understand you” and “I appreciate you.” To Dhawan, this extends to reading emails with care and attention – to the same degree that excellent listeners focus on what individuals are saying as well as leaving out.
  1. Communicate carefully. This involves continuously working to be as clear as possible in your words and digital body language to minimize the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. You improve your ability to communicate carefully when you use an appropriate channel for your messages and/or channel your recipients prefer. And of course, identify who’s responsible for taking action. We Habit Crew members emphasize this for our primary communication habit, since business relies on taking action.
  1. Collaborate confidently. This means managing the fears, uncertainty and worries that engulf modern workplaces so that people feel comfortable to support one another, work together and take action. When everyone follows this law, you’re able to work on an even keel with everyone assuming the best intent from each other.
  1. Trust totally. This law is possible to achieve only after the first three laws are operating smoothly. When you trust totally, you have a team culture in which all members have psychological safety and can candidly express themselves. Members also share in the ownership of the work, regardless of power differentials.

Even if you comply with these four laws, you can still miscommunicate, which Dhawan realizes. That’s why she also devotes portions of the book to addressing differences between genders, generations, introverts and extroverts, and cultures. In the latter, she focuses primarily on east and west, including my favorite for contributing to frictions, indirect and direct communication.

As another valuable service, Dhawan provides a digital body language guidebook. It includes a style guide, some team exercises, reflection questions, and quizzes. These items might not fit you and your team perfectly, but they give you a head start in getting shared clarity.

Reading this book made me realize the extent to which we’re all still pioneers, exploring and settling into the digital communication frontier. We don’t yet have paved roads; they’re still dirt.

So no wonder we’re still experiencing hellish conditions.To bolster our good intentions we need to take time to create digital rules of the road so we can first get on the same road, and then get onto the same page.


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