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Energy Management Habit 3: Building Positive Relationships in a Virtual World

When we first moved to remote working over a year ago, video conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or WebEx seemed like the perfect solution to all our communication issues. At the start of the pandemic, we even used them extensively after working hours. Remember Zoom quiz nights in lockdown number one? After a year of COVID lockdowns, our excitement about these virtual meet ups with friends and family has dropped. We might even experience a slight sense of dread just reading about yet another Zoom call.

While we can decrease the number of virtual meet ups in our spare time, online meetings are still a necessity when working remotely. Now, it is only with reluctance that we go through a workday of videoconferencing, and afterwards, we feel more fatigued and drained than after a normal day full of meetings in the office. But why do we feel more exhausted after a day of online meetings? And what effect does that have on our relationships with others?

The phenomenon of increased exhaustion after one too many video calls has now been coined “Zoom fatigue.” While apps like Zoom ensure continued communication with colleagues, they cannot replace human face-to-face interaction. During online meetings, our brains’ attention systems work at full capacity, however, the social rewards that face-to-face interactions provide are missing.

Scientists have started to unpack the effects of Zoom fatigue on our physical and mental health. Jeremy Bailenson, head of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, argues that Zoom fatigue comes from an overload of non-verbal cues that are slightly delayed, inhibiting our brains to assign meaning to them.

As a result, our cognitive system gets overwhelmed, and gets tired quicker than usual. In addition to that, we are simply not used to seeing ourselves on screen for hours on end, and it is harder (if not impossible!) for us to decipher the body language of others on a video call. Our energy slips through our fingers while we stare at our screens, our brains working in overdrive to keep up with the unnatural stimuli that we are exposed to.

Another negative side effect caused by the energy drain we experience from Zoom fatigue is that our communication style changes. The numbers speak for themselves: in a “normal” working world, only 36% of people are emotionally literate, and thus have the ability to appropriately express feelings and needs without judging or blaming someone else (Emotional Intelligence 2.0). Interrupting human interaction through online communication, these numbers drop even lower.

Online communication is a communication based on limitations. We are missing social interaction, are limited to our audio-visual senses when communicating with others, and are missing out on crucial body language cues because we only see the upper half of our colleagues. To ensure a positive work environment within these limitations, it is important to put special emphasis on the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships in the workplace.

So how can we increase positivity in relationships in a virtual world? According to renowned psychotherapist John Gottman, the magic ratio is 5:1, meaning that for any relationship to be perceived as positive, at least five positive interactions are necessary to set off one negative. Sound familiar? Gottman became famous when he was able to predict the success rate of marriages with over 90% accuracy using this formula! Similar conclusions can also be drawn for professional relationships in the workplace. One way to increase positive interactions is by using Active Constructive Responding.

Active Constructive Responding is a technique in positive psychology that provides guidance on how to react when someone shares positive news with us. Ideally, this reaction is a positive one, involving genuine interest and enthusiasm. Ask questions that enable your counterpart to re-live the positive experience by sharing it with you. This can be facilitated by a simple statement like: “That’s fantastic news! Tell me how you found out!” Communicating in this way charges the batteries of both ourselves, and our colleagues.

Active Constructive Responding involves what we say, as well as our body language. When someone shares positive news with us, make sure to not just share their enthusiasm and ask questions, but also communicate your excitement non-verbally. Smile to convey joy, and have an open body language. Avoid turning your body away, or crossing your arms. It will make your partner feel acknowledged, supported, and appreciated.

Body language is an even more important factor in virtual communication, as it is often interrupted by the framing of our camera. In a study conducted by UCL that introduced new hand signals to substitute for missing in-person body language in video conferences, the test group practicing the signals reported significantly higher ratings for increased group interactions, and a stronger sense of group affiliation (UCL News).

Active Constructive Responding is thus highly effective in facilitating positive relationships in both in-person and virtual communication. It increases important factors like relationship satisfaction, trust, and stability (Gable et al.), all of which are crucial for successful relationships, at work and beyond.

Zoom, MS Teams, WebEx: originally used to ensure continued communication throughout the isolation of the pandemic, they drain our energy even more than a normal long workday. Let’s ensure that this energy drain doesn’t cause us to disrupt our already challenged social interactions even more. Instead, focus on positive ways to keep communication open and productive, and pick up the phone to call people—that’s what it’s there for!

In the words of Carl W. Buehner: “People may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” This also rings true for a hybrid working environment and its challenges. By practicing Active Constructive Responding, we bond with our colleagues on a deeper level, and are thus better equipped to take on the challenges of hybrid working together!

Coaches Corner Action Steps:

Implement Active Constructive Responding into your workday now—get started using these questions:

  • What actions will you take to develop an active constructive responding habit?
  • Why will you take this action?
  • When will you use the SUN model?
  • How will you implement this action?
  • Who can help you, and who can you help?

Reprinted with permission from Jay Chopra, PhD, co-founder and Managing Director of Making Shift Happen and a Herrmann Master Certified Facilitator. Articles written with help from Anne Mahler PhD & David O' Mahony: Read His Full Blog Here.

See prior related blog on Practice Flexible Thinking

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