7 Lessons to Improve Trust in a Virtual World

– With contributions from Sandy Styer, Client Manager – Diagnostics and Stewart Hirsch, Senior Coach – Business Development and Executive Leadership 

Pandemic. Coronavirus. Covid-19. _____.   ______.  . ______.

Fill in the blanks with adjective(s) of your choice [apocalyptic; unprecedented; crisis; game-changer; etc.] Add a flourishing punch line, and you’ve got the intro to this piece.

There, that’s done.

But I want to talk about something specific: the fact that the business world has lurched toward operating in a virtual manner. A major client of ours had a 5-year plan to migrate training to fully online. The plan got compressed to 6 months. And so it is with most of us.

This move to virtual affects two ways in which we engage to create trust;

  • 1-to-1 virtual interactions
  • Interacting in a group / video conferencing

As we’ve written elsewhere, even in normal times the role of human emotions in trust plays a slightly stronger role than that played by our rational, brain-based activities. In the trustworthiness-based Trust Equation, that means Intimacy and low Self-orientation are more powerful than Credibility and Reliability.

In times of Pandemic etc. – multiply that by 10.

Which raises the pointed question:

How are we to do an already tough job when we can’t be physically next to or in front of other human beings? 

Our most obvious sense – visual – is at best reduced to a 1-inch square 2-dimensional image on Zoom, Google Hangouts or Teams. Worse, that image is subject to fuzziness and to periodic disconnect with the disembodied voice accompanying it.

Our sense of hearing, as noted above, is significantly affected – most nuance gone. Smell and touch – among our least conscious senses, but powerful nonetheless – are completely eliminated.

And that’s with video conferencing. What about phone, email, texting, social media, etc. Are they not incomparably weakened when it comes to creating trust?

The Good News: It CAN Be Done

Count me among those who think the shift to virtual is here to stay: we’re not returning to those days of yesteryear. And yet: human beings have not been rewired. We’re fundamentally the same. So if we do not change – the way we interact must change.

We remain the same products of eons of evolution that we were three months ago. The imperative for interpersonal social connection remains wired into our DNA. Whether we will continue to seek it is beyond doubt: we will. The only question presented is how we will contrive to meet the imperatives in a new operating environment?

So let’s dig in.

One anchor we can count on: the strongest form of trust is personal – even when you’re interacting in a group.

And it’s not like we don’t have experience. In particular, lessons can be drawn from an eclectic set of sources:

  • Public speaking and oratory
  • Communicating with blind and deaf people
  • Non-business writing
  • Etiquette – the rules of social behavior
  • Speaking to another person in not-their-first-language

Following are 7 lessons drawn from the above fields. I’ll group them according to 1-to-1 virtual interactions, and group virtual interactions (though there is some cross-over).

1-to-1 Virtual Interactions

  1. Seek more (emotional) bandwidth. For any given interaction requiring an emotional connection, seek a higher medium of communication than you did three months ago.
    • Instead of texting, use email. Instead of a terse email, add more thoughts and words. Instead of long emails, remember the forgotten application embedded in our iPhones – the phone itself.
  2. Do a little more homework. Find out a bit more than usual about the group you’re speaking to.
    • LinkedIn is a fast resource to get a feel for people.
    • You may use only one tenth of what you find out, but that’s OK – the point is not to show you did your homework, the point is simply to know, going in, more about the group.
    • On phone calls, have in front of you photos of people you’re speaking to (again, LinkedIn is a good source.)
  3. Use the Rule of Reciprocity. That is, you get back what you put out. For example:
    • If you listen attentively to others, they will be inclined to listen attentively to you.
    • If you (substantively and accurately) praise others, they will be inclined to do the same to you.
    • If you share the agenda up front with others, they will respect the agenda you jointly create.
    • If you take an emotional risk (e.g. commenting on your own feelings, or on your perception of their feelings), they will be similarly inclined to take emotional risks in return.
    • If you trust them, they will become more trustworthy, and more willing to trust you.
  4. Dare to be personal. Not private, necessarily – but personal. Remember: In these pandemic times, the realm of the emotional is 10X more important than before; and it was always a bit more important.
    • You don’t need to reference outside lives – kids, sports teams – to establish emotional connection. You do need to reference emotions, feelings, reactions, perceptions, elephants-in-the-room, the unspoken issues. All these can be raised in the context of the-personal-in-business: things that are happening in the workplace.
    • To talk about the feelings of others, use first-person language like, “I’m sensing hesitation,” or “I’m picking up a bit of concern there,” or “I thought you looked a little perplexed there,” or “I’m trying to think if it were me, and I think I’d probably feel…” (As opposed to second-person language like “You’re hesitating there…”)
    • To talk about your own feelings, use first-person language like, “Maybe it’s just me, but that makes me feel a little nervous,” or “I’ve gotta tell you, I’m feeling a little concerned about…,” or “at the risk of being the only one who feels this way, I’m not on board yet with this idea…”

Interacting in a Group / Video Conferencing

  1. Find ways to connect personally with your audience. And do it one individual at a time.
    • Address participants by name, especially when replying to a specific question.
    • Just as in public speaking, speak to one person at a time – don’t be shy about using their name, everyone in the group will sense the personal connection
    • Look into the camera most of the time, not at your screen, while you address that one person.
    • Single out individuals on the call – inquire about the local weather for one person, comment on the video background of another.
  2. Eschew emotionally barren communications. They lend themselves to fear, suspicion of motives, ALL-CAPS flaming, and withdrawal.
    • Violate Hemingway’s rules of writing – use more adjectives.
    • Modulate your voice more; make gestures bigger; move to and away from the camera; use hand gestures (thumbs up, the OK sign, handshake gesture, point to the camera, etc.)
    • Selectively use emojis in text-based or online communications.
    • Use more words, and simpler words, to convey the thought.
    • Use more stories.
    • Evoke the senses: make reference to sounds, smells, touch, sights, temperature, nature.
    • Mix your media: for any meeting over 20 minutes, include things like images, video clips, interactive exercises, breakouts.
    • For web-based video calls, master the tools of toggling back and forth between sharing your desktop and looking at the screen full of participants.
  3. Ramp up the level of interaction. The desire to interact must counteract the low-bandwidth nature of the medium you’re using. Be thoughtful about how others perceive you.
    • Use polling capabilities.
    • Become familiar with electronic breakout rooms.
    • For web-based video calls, use non-technical means – ask questions, use the chat feature, ask for thumbs-up or thumbs-down reactions, call on individuals.
    • Have an interesting background, rather than a ‘beige’ or neutral background: bookcases, views, furniture. The point is not to be distracting, but enough that it personalizes you. Virtual backgrounds are now available to all, either digitally or through green screen.
    • Lighting – particularly foreground lighting – is important. People want to see your face; oblige them.
    • Audio is even more important. Experiment – with mics, headsets, earphones. You want no-echo, no ambient noise, good distance.

If there’s any single point to be gleaned from the above suggestions, it is that Trust is Personal – even, and perhaps especially, in a virtual world.

Which particular suggestion do you find most useful? And please add your own to the list.