Meaningful Connection in a Virtual World
In this time of change and uncertainty, one thing that we are probably all struggling with is making and maintaining meaningful connections. This is largely due to the fact that we are not able to interact in person much, or at all (depending on where in the world you are). This is a strange, surreal challenge that impacts us on a personal and business level. However, unlike the quarantine experiences in 1918 during the Spanish flu outbreak, we have the advantage of using virtual platforms to run our business and connect with friends, family and colleagues.
One of the most important things for us right now, is how to make these virtual interactions meaningful. Some of us are running our businesses completely online now, jumping from virtual meeting to virtual meeting. We are also running our social lives completely online. In my case, aside from the many virtual business meetings, I have had to look at running training sessions and team developments online, I have had virtual birthday parties, virtual games nights and drinks, virtual dance lessons, and even a virtual dance festival. While this is absolutely incredible, and may keep us very busy, it can also be extremely overwhelming. Here are a few things that I have been considering through my many virtual interactions:
- It is so important to be intentional in every interaction, to help in really building connection.
- Being vulnerable is key to making a virtual interaction feel personal and meaningful.
- It is ok, to not be ok being connected in a virtual session all day. We need to find ways to break this up and do what works for us.
- Most importantly, we can do so much more virtually than we had imagined, but we need to accept that it cannot and will not be exactly the same as if it was done in person. This however does not mean it will necessarily be better or worse, just different.
Creating real connection is not easy when looking at someone through a screen, and even less so when you are connecting with just a voice on the other side of the line. Yet, as human beings, one of our most basic needs is connection. We require physical touch, to be understood and to be heard and appreciated. At this point, physical touch may be a problem, but we can create a deep sense of understanding, we can hear each other and appreciate each other by making use of the virtual tools available to us. The starting point, to being successful in creating meaningful virtual connections, is to be intentional.
We need to be intentional in three key areas: our method of connecting, the content we include and the tone we use, and our presence and awareness. Let’s take a deeper look at these.
We have so many options of tools to make use of currently. Have you taken a step back and really thought about which is the right tool for each interaction? Well, first we would need to reflect on what it is we would like to achieve in the interaction. If we are just needing to very quickly share a bit of information, a text may be suitable. If we urgently need a response to something, we could call. When we need to have meetings, for team updates, brainstorming, discussions etc. we should really think cleverly about what platform we use. We need to consider the people we are connecting with, their access to internet and a stable connection, the environment they are connecting from and the possible distractions they may have (kids, pets etc.). We should also consider whether we will share slides or our screen, and how much time we actually need for the meeting. We should also think about whether seeing each other’s faces would add value to the discussion. If we are working on projects together, we can consider using tools for collaboration, that might save us from having too many meetings.
- Content and tone
The content we cover in our interactions must create meaning. According to Priya Parker (author of The Art of Gathering), in order to create meaning, we need two things: specificity and structure. When we consider the content of every interaction, we must be specific about what we want to cover and achieve, as well as how we plan to achieve it. In other words, we really need to spend some time preparing. Let’s face it, we all lose connection, and I don’t mean internet connection, but our personal connection, when we are in a virtual or even physical meetings, if we have no clue what is going on and our discussions are not getting to a point. I guess, working in a virtual space, we need to be even more cognisant of this. Cover something specific, and make it clear upfront, either before the meeting or at the beginning of the meeting.
The structure of the meeting impacts the tone that we set. If you want to create an open brainstorming platform, you require a different tone to a meeting focused on reaching a decision on a specific topic. We need to identify how much interaction we require in our meetings, and what methods can we employ to create a space for it. Just because we are not actually sitting face-to-face, does not mean that we cannot be connected and in tune with each other.
- Presence and awareness
I was in an interesting session run by a colleague of mine, Dina Cramer, the other day on how to use the Time to Think methodology by Nancy Kline to have more effective online meetings. I think it links beautifully to how we maintain our presence and awareness in our interactions. There are some wonderful tools covered in the Time to Think methodology, that we can make use of in our meetings to assist attendees in staying aware and present.
That being said though, we are still responsible for ourselves in any interaction, be it virtual or face-to-face. We need to be honest with ourselves and the people we are interacting with about our current state of mind, our attention and focus. We need to also ensure that we reduce distraction as much as possible, because we can easily tell when someone is really listening to us and paying attention. In any connection we create as humans, deep listening is so crucial. None of us want to continue sharing ourselves and our time with people who are not listening and not respecting our time.
Personally, I would say that one of the most important factors in creating meaningful connections is vulnerability. When we are able to be vulnerable on some level, we open ourselves up to the person/ people we are connecting with. Through vulnerability we create depth, we provide insight and we show trust. In the book, The power of charisma: The C-factor to inspire change, by Dan Strutzel and Traci Shoblom, there is a discussion about three levels of vulnerability. I found these levels really insightful and useful, especially when considering our virtual interactions, that require more thought and intention.
The first level is light disclosure, which entails sharing something light and anecdotal about something that is funny or interesting that has happened to you. Here we could share about how we got interrupted by our kid or pet in a previous virtual meeting, or how we have been wearing pyjama pants daily and only dressing up the top half of ourselves. This creates a base for connection but is not something that is really deep or personal.
The second level, which moves us a little deeper in connection is medium disclosure. With medium disclosure, we start to share our beliefs, opinions and ideas about the world. We really begin to share these once we feel safe enough that even if someone does not agree with us, they will listen and not hang up on us. Once we begin sharing at this level, we allow people to see how we think and what we feel. Currently we may be sharing about the real impact of the pandemic on our lives and our livelihood, on what we see for the future for ourselves and our families. This is when we begin to let people in, we show them that we trust them enough to open the door for more meaningful connection.
The final level is not one we will share with just anyone but is one that allows us to show all of ourselves, warts and all. This level is called heavy disclosure. “It is the riskiest and most difficult kind of storytelling” (Strutzel & Shoblom). Heavy disclose is sharing the really deep, personal parts of our lives. We would only go to this level with people we trust deeply or people we would like to become trusted advisors in our lives.
Generally, to make our connections deeper in a virtual space we would move between light and medium disclose. We need to challenge ourselves, not to fall into the trap of just focusing on the topic at hand, but set aside time for, and work on creating these connections. We can inspire people to be vulnerable by being vulnerable ourselves, and by starting to ask the ‘right’ questions. Questions that create space for reflection and openness.
We need to remember that if we make use of this opportunity to explore and create the connections that we want, even on a virtual platform, we will reap the incredible rewards. As Churchill once said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
- Priya Parker: The art of gathering (2018) & TED talk – How to create meaningful connections while apart (2020)
- Dina Cramer: Using the “Time to think” methodology to have more effective online meetings during the Covid19 lockdown and beyond (IgniteSQ)
- Nancy Kline: Time to think (1999)
- Dan Strutzel & Traci Shoblom: The power of charisma: The C-factor to inspire change (2017)