This article originally appeared on Forbes.com
The conventional wisdom is that when team members can’t be in a single location, video-conferencing is the next best thing to the face-to-face meeting. Virtual meetings are downright necessities for creating relationships among geographically separated employees who need to function like an integrated team. After all, we want to see the person who’s speaking, and we interpret their body language, gestures and facial expressions as part of recognizing who’s who and to understand the content they’re conveying.
And yet we’ve all had that awful moment when the screen freezes. Even when the feed is running reasonably smoothly, it can be hard to know whether to look at the camera, the screen, or at colleagues’ faces. There’s plenty of excellent advice about how to conduct virtual meetings effectively and how to focus specifically on nuanced or challenging communication over video. Unfortunately, video conferencing can still fall short when it comes to understanding how your colleagues are really reacting.
It may feel like going backwards, but if you want real connection and can’t be there in person, using the telephone alone can give you a more accurate take on what’s happening with other people, particularly if you’re handling a sensitive topic or delivering bad news. Some executives are returning to plain old phone calls and finding them more productive. As Susan Landay, president of sister companies Trainers Warehouse and Office Oxygen, notes, “When talking by Skype I sometimes feel that both the auditory messages and visual cues are compromised. By contrast, when speaking by phone, you’re 100% focused.”
A study by Michael W. Kraus of the Yale University School of Management backs up this impression. According to Kraus, when we can see the speaker, we pay less attention to the content of speech, and significantly less attention to the speaker’s vocal cues. It turns out that it’s easier for us to manage our faces than our voices, so “facial and nonverbal expressions are a less reliable source of accurate emotion expression than the voice” and that vocal “cues require extensive attention and control to mask — making leakage of internal states more likely.” This means that if a situation involves subtext or triggers personal reactions, we’re more likely to get a better idea of speakers’ true perceptions and intent if we only hear them rather than seeing them.
If you’re trying to understand colleagues’ communications more accurately and work with them more effectively, here are three circumstances in which you might want to use the telephone alone rather than rely on video-conferencing.
When you’re providing coaching and support. I often find that just hearing the way clients greet me in a phone call lets me know how they’re doing. Their tone of voice provides clues that help me assess how solicitous to be, how much to probe, and whether it’s the right time — and how hard — to press them on challenging topics.
When you’re delivering negative or distressing content. Whether you’ve had to share critical feedback or explain a decision that didn’t go the way the recipients preferred, by concentrating on their language and how their voice sounds, you may get more information about their reaction than you would via video, where the recipients could have been face-managing and covering up their opposition or worry. Then if you detect distress or dissatisfaction, you have the chance to respond: “You sound a little disappointed about the situation, and I’m sorry we’re not going to be able to go in the direction you wanted,” or “It doesn’t sound like you’re really in agreement with my assessment, so would you please tell me more about your concerns?”
When you know a difficult conversation is coming, and you don’t want to leak it. If you know you’ll have to deliver bad news or discipline someone in the near future, communicating by phone can help you suppress any messages that you shouldn’t be sharing yet. Plan your messaging in advance so you’re prepared to control your vocal tone. You’ll reduce the need to manage your facial expressions and gestures and eliminate the possibility of recipients noticing a mismatch between your voice and appearance. It’s also easier to stick to your notes about what to say.
In today’s time-starved, device-driven workplaces, which include people with different kinds of background and experience, the ability to listen closely for the authenticity of vocal cues is more important than ever. It’s likely that you’ll need to continue conducting virtual meetings, both to accommodate large groups and to share a variety of visual information. Whenever you can, though, try voice-to-voice with individuals and with small groups as a way to encourage candor, accurately identify emotional reactions and build stronger relationships.
Onward and upward —