Business consultants face new challenges as we enter year three of the COVID Pandemic and recognise that work has changed forever. As consultants, we used to have to be experts in our field, reasonably sociable, and little more. However, new skills have emerged that matter whether we consult on business, management, technology, communications systems, or human resources.
The changing face of video calls
In traditional consulting, handshakes, body language, and small talk were how we made the first impression. We made quick judgements based on clothing, office design, and hygiene, rapidly deciding how to engage for maximum effectiveness.
Now Zoom, Meet, Teams and Webex have become the norm, and the tools available have made it more difficult. Fake backgrounds, youth filters, voice augmentation, and a limited camera view distort what we experience, making our natural assumptions almost useless.
What we need to know
We still have the same desire to connect to the person. Communication becomes easier the more we know of the other person's assumptions. That’s why talking to a partner is easier than talking to a stranger at a bar. We know the beliefs, culture, philosophy, and psychology of the person we know well, so we can use fewer words and know they will fill in the rest accurately.
If we use few words with someone new, they may fill the gaps with all the wrong things, leading to miscommunication and possibly a failed relationship. If we say too much, we may overwhelm them or say a lot that they already know. So what can we do to understand them over a video call quickly?
Sherlock Holmes could take one look at a person and tell many details of their life based on their shoes, collar, a scrap of dirt under their fingernails. Modern communication works in much the same way. When you get on a video call, look carefully for clues to the person’s personality.
Do they have a custom virtual background, or have they just left the bookcase filled with junk in the shot? Have they taken time to position themselves in front of the camera, or are they in the corner of the frame? Do they use a headset or sound like they are in a wind tunnel? Have they dressed for the call or just rolled out of bed and thrown on a shirt? Do they have makeup on? Have they positioned their window on the screen, so they appear to be looking into the camera, or are you getting a side view of their head as they look at you on a secondary monitor?
Answering these questions, and more like them can paint a clear opening portrait of the person’s character and the importance of the call to them.
Sherlock was also a master at asking the right question at the right time. Small talk is often maligned, but psychologists consider it a backbone skill of building relationships.
Asking questions can confirm or refute assumptions made based on the first impression. Use small talk to open them up about themselves and ideally get them to tell a story. Stories are by far the best way to get to know someone. You can tell just as much about a person based on what they say as to how they say it.
Did they speak fast or slow? Was this a story they rehearsed or came naturally? Have they told it a million times before? Did they reveal emotions or just what happened? Was it personal or about someone else? Did they self-deprecate or self-aggrandise? Who was the hero of the story?
The door opens from both sides
So to recap, observation of how they set up the call and questions to check your observations gives you insight into the other person. This is empathy. Erroneously many claim that one cannot learn empathy, but it must be innate. Even McKinsey points out that it is one of the most desired skills over the next decade but claims it is innate. We at Sesh teach it all the time. Anyone can learn it.
So you can use these Empathy techniques discussed here to start being better at reading people in the Zoom world.
Remember that just as you may ask these questions and elicit stories from others, it goes both ways, and they will be doing the same for you!
So prepare for your calls and be ready with your stories, even as you use your empathy to get a step ahead.