Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century collaboration, CEO of Cotential, and co-author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence. Prior to her keynote session, Dhawan spoke with Connection Point about her background and experience and what she’ll share with ATD Virtual Conference attendees.
Please share a bit about your research on digital body language. Why and how did you decide to pursue that?
After authoring my book, Get Big Things Done, I traveled the world, speaking and consulting on the subject of collaboration. My mission was to help organizations bring people closer together on teams no matter the distance. Everywhere I went, the same issue kept popping up. The same tools that enabled swifter, more ideal connections—email, text messaging, Slack, Zoom, and so on—were in fact eroding the very thing leaders were trying to improve: effective human collaboration.
The more I worked with leaders to forge new, improved connections in their businesses, the more obvious it was that the digital tools that had set us free in so many ways had also led to widespread miscommunication and conflict. And all of that was lowering employee engagement and creating across-the-board anxiety.
If you’ve ever read an email from a colleague that would read as professional to one person but was clearly passive-aggressive to you, you know what I’m talking about. Digital body language is the new cues and signals that make up the subtext of our messages, and it is a critical leadership skill to master to drive silo-breaking collaboration, inclusion, and engagement—just like traditional body language in the past. Signals such as our timing, choice of medium, punctuation, who we CC and BCC, and our words indicate our tone and underlying meaning. I love this topic because it’s so prevalent in our everyday lives that most people don’t even think about it. When I start breaking down digital body language signals, people’s faces light up, or they laugh and say “Yes, that happens to me!”
Can you provide some quick tips as to what professionals should take into account before hitting the “send” button on digital messaging?
I think most mistakes and miscommunications can be preempted by simply resisting the urge to hit send as fast as possible. Here are a few tips:
Think before you type. We live in a very fast-paced world, but we need to take a step back and proofread our messages, not just for grammar or correctness but for tone and clarity as well. Before you hit send, take a quick read and ask, “Is my message clear?” and “How could my language and punctuation—or even medium—choice be misinterpreted?”
Choose clarity over brevity. The pressure to communicate quickly is making us take shortcuts that can be confusing. A short message is not inherently a clear message. And many times leaders come across as sloppy when they send the shortest message possible—at the very least, you need to make sure that each message is clear on what you’re asking, why, and by when.
Less haste equals more speed. The rapid pace at which communication happens via digital means pushes all of us into a mindset where immediate responses and multitasking seem to be mandatory. Develop the digital communication skill of patient and careful responses. This will enable you to avoid the re-dos necessary to make up for mistakes that you made through haste.
As recipients of so many electronic communications, what should we be keeping in mind about the person and context surrounding the message so we’re better able to understand?
Your manager reminds you of an upcoming deadline. Is he just being helpful, or is he showcasing his hierarchical dominance? Are you making the whole thing up, is it a little of both, or is it neither? How can you tell? To better understand digital body language, you must understand that inherent in any communications you are answering two questions: Who between us has more power? How much do you and I trust each other?
In any two-way or group communication, people may use digital body language signals and cues to subconsciously attempt to answer those two questions. We may prioritize speed, clarity, and substantive messages with our bosses and clients yet choose to deliver one-liners with no subject line to a junior report. If you email a close colleague and the trust between you is high, they may assume you are busy if you respond in brief or take several days to reply. But if the trust is low, your colleague may interpret your silence as deliberate and your brevity as an expression of simmering resentment or even anger. When dealing with confusing messages, assess how much power and trust you have, and assume the best intent.
What do you hope participants will take away from your keynote session?
I hope they walk away with really practical tools to eliminate the challenges of remote work and establish trust, empowerment, and motivation in today’s digital workplace. For the past six years, I’ve studied a wide array of exchanges—from large virtual conferences and Zoom meetings to daily emails, instant messages, and conference calls. I believe simple, specific digital body language changes invigorate any work relationship. Participants will walk away with an understanding of the digital body language signals they broadcast, even if they don’t intend to, and how to build trust and connection, no matter the distance.
ATD’s Virtual Conference was designed to provide a safe space for TD pros to come together to learn. What one thing have you learned that has made the greatest impact in your life?
I grew up in a family of Indian immigrants, where I was taught that learning and developing yourself is everything. But I’ve also learned that you need to upgrade your capabilities when an existing way of thinking doesn’t apply anymore. My book Get Big Things Done seeks to upgrade our skillsets from emotional intelligence in the 1990s to the digital world of connectional intelligence. My second book on the topic of Digital Body Language (to be released in 2021) seeks to help us thrive by mastering the upgrade from traditional to digital body language. I hope to keep learning and growing myself, while upgrading 21st century leadership skills like connectional intelligence and digital body language to organizations everywhere.
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