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Cultivating the art of communication in a post-COVID world

One of the hidden casualties of this global pandemic is the negative impact on everyday communication. Talking through a mask is one of the more obvious constraints—your voice is muffled, and people can’t read your facial expressions. Add to that the need to socially distance and simple conversations can become a chore rather than a pleasure. But the problems extend beyond the physical hindrance of mask-wearing.

The lost art of communication

Even before COVID put the world into lockdown, employers have been emphasising the need for effective communication skills in the workplace in their hiring and employee evaluation processes. Unfortunately, people are more comfortable engaging through devices and, in my experience, appear to be increasingly reluctant to engage in person.

Workplace issues that could be resolved with a straightforward phone conversation or face to face discussion can quickly spiral out of control from a misread email or an overlooked message. Face to face communication encourages empathetic listening, appropriate questioning and a more nuanced conversation.

There is no doubt that people are exhausted from COVID, which has impacted communication effectiveness. Carrying a ‘mental load’ from two years of uncertainty and stress is bound to influence how we interact. Even from my personal experience, there’s anxiety around the simple act of getting together with other people and tensions around vaccine rules and beliefs that complicate that further.

Why do we fear direct communication?

A recent UK study found that over 80% of mobile phone calls were shorter than five minutes, and the majority were under 90 seconds. It’s almost considered rude these days to phone someone without prior arrangement. We’ve become accustomed to complete control over our personal ‘comms’ through social media and messaging apps.

An incoming phone call threatens this sense of control, and an unrecognised caller ID is likely to be ignored. (Hands up if you sometimes let it go to voice-mail so you can vet it later ✋).

Open-plan offices used to be busy and noisy environments, but that’s no longer the case since digital collaboration tools have become the norm. While these tools are well suited to functional interactions (e.g. “Please find attached the EOY report”), they lack the spontaneous and intangible qualities of direct conversation. During these impromptu chats, we brainstorm new ideas, strengthen our relationships, and better understand each other's needs.

Communication - it's about quality, not quantity

So how do we overcome our anxiety and cultivate better communication within our workforce? What should we be conscious and mindful of as we connect with colleagues, team members and leaders? Encouraging more active communication will definitely be a focus for me in 2022.

Firstly, let’s remember that as human beings, we were ultimately created for relationships with others, and without this dimension, in my view, our lives lack meaning. As a function of being human and living a long and healthy life, we need meaningful interaction with others— it’s something to be cherished.

Many employers speak with me regularly about how they can improve the productivity and performance of their workplace through culture and engagement. I often ask them how they “engage” with their workforce. If they say through email, virtual meetings, etc., therein lies the problem. In the busyness of work, life and task accomplishment, we can easily forget the importance of genuine engagement—and lockdowns haven't helped.

To overcome this, we need to address our fears around socialisation. I became pretty comfortable in my lockdown bubble and the process of interacting with friends and colleagues through technology. I developed a kind of social anxiety that stopped me from interacting face to face with others when the lockdown restrictions were lifted. I hadn’t put petrol in my car for several months, and even chatting to the service station attendant felt unfamiliar. I had to recognise this was normal and find the richness and joy in face-to-face interactions again.

While there are advantages and benefits to interacting using technology, and I am sure I will continue to utilise these benefits, it has been very enriching to invest in relationships and socialising again.

But, I must admit to being a bit rusty and had to retrain my communication habits, such as asking questions (about things other than COVID for a start). My hairdresser has a nice list of questions on the mirror of the salon:

  • What’s your favourite recipe?

  • What are you most looking forward to in 2022?

  • What are you doing for the holiday period?

  • If you could travel somewhere this year, where would it be?

  • What is something you’d like to learn in 2022?

  • What is something you’d like to achieve in 2022?

These types of questions are great conversation starters. The key is actively listening for responses rather than switching off or becoming distracted (as we often do with technology). Effective listening techniques include paraphrasing or reinforcing, clarifying, summarising, and reflecting without judgment. Try contributing to discussions with meaningful input on topics of interest (again other than COVID!).

These skills are valuable in any interaction, virtual or face to face. I’ve found that cultivating these essential communication skills when returning to in-person conversations has strengthened my relationships with people.

I’m no expert in facial expressions or body language, but learning to read signals and signs again is something I’ve also had to work on, not to mention being more aware of my own body language! Thanks to a few extra COVID kilos, I often put my hands on my hips - a new bad habit and not a welcoming stance for casual conversation with a colleague. Being conscious and mindful of these things is all part of effective communication.

To genuinely engage with our families, friends, colleagues and workplaces, we need to cultivate the art of effective communication, one of the most critical skills for success.

I know I will be placing more value on social capital and building relationships in 2022. While technology will continue to be a big part of our lives, in-person meetings and coffee catchups can often achieve better outcomes than endless online meetings or emails.

I believe that quality interactions are the key to genuine engagement, which is vital in all aspects of business and people management. Personal interactions allow us to establish and nurture meaningful relationships with our colleagues, clients, family and friends—which is good for business and good for the soul!

If you want to chat about this or any other topic - feel free to get in touch.

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