Are you irritating people?  The virtual communications mistakes you're making that have your colleagues, clients and friends screaming at their screens...

Are you irritating people?  The virtual communications mistakes you're making that have your colleagues, clients and friends screaming at their screens...

Virtual communications can be frustrating. John keeps dropping in and out of the call, Bob is trying to talk on mute, and – just as you’re about to close a deal – Janet’s dog starts barking in the background. Sound familiar? 

As many of us battle to work from home, with the multitude of distractions and tech issues it brings, patience can start to run thin, putting a strain on our verbal behaviours, resulting in communication break downs. Unsurprisingly, this can mean that we all become a little bit irritating – meaning skilful verbal behaviour has never been more important. Here’s how to avoid irritating friends, clients and colleagues unintentionally as we adapt our relationships and communications to be compatible with our new virtual reality.

Don’t talk for talking’s sake

Perhaps the biggest and most important hurdle to overcome when communicating virtually is to avoid talking over others. You may well be the life and soul of the party, but the scene has changed, and you need to change with it. One sure fire way to irritate people is to forget to listen, and talk – or worst still, shout – over others. Instead, digest the information you’re receiving properly and take time to really understand what’s been said. And remember, computer microphones are more sensitive than you think.

Whether empathising with Aunt Marge and her cats, or understanding what our clients need during this difficult time, when we listen, we provide ourselves with an opportunity to explore other’s wants and needs. This helps us to improve our ability to communicate effectively – meaning family and friends feel loved and heard, whilst clients and colleagues feel valued and listened to, giving the impression, that they’re in safe hands whilst difficult decisions are being made.   

Avoid escalating tensions

Disagreeing on a point and negotiating an alternative can be tricky at the best of times, never mind when you’re communicating virtually amid a global pandemic. As we all adapt to our new normal, friends and family want to pick up usual socialising routines (albeit virtually), whilst colleagues and clients need your ongoing support and reassurance, often around tricky issues. Such pressures to maintain these relationships can inevitably lead to difficult conversations being had – something that is often easier to do face-to-face.

Asking questions and testing understanding is key. If you disagree on a point someone is making, try to understand why the matter is important to them and what their ‘non-negotiable’ terms are. This level of understanding will help you to identify where there may be wiggle room in the conversation. Once you are clearer on a solution, test understanding by ensuring the new agreement is fully understood and accepted by all parties to avoid any future frictions. It may be as small as agreeing on a time to hold a quiz with pals, but under such extreme circumstances, even the most trivial of disagreements can escalate quickly. Ask questions to help defuse tensions and find a solution that is mutually agreeable and summarise this for the benefit of all.

Counter offers can be counterproductive

When communicating online, there is often a sense of urgency to wrap up a conversation or get a deal done; perhaps the internet connection keeps dropping out or you are expecting a domestic distraction at any minute. When we are under this type of perceived pressure, we often resort to making hasty counter offers or proposals in a bid to seal the deal, or tick off the task in hand quickly. Whether this is agreeing to workloads for the week, or lining up a serious business deal – rushing conversations can be counterproductive.

Good communication is about listening and understanding the needs of others, whilst maintaining a strong stance. By immediately counter offering it shows that you’re not listening – which is an immediate turn off, meaning conversations are less likely to be flexible and productive and a solution will be harder to come by.

Mind your online behaviours

There are a number of behaviours that work to immediately irritate people in conversations – be it online or in person. Just because we are operating virtually, and under extenuating circumstances, does not mean you will be given leeway on these.

Self-praising declarations are one of these irritators. Using the words ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ when talking to people, immediately creates a non-productive environment and can ruffle feathers. These presumptuous words can undermine the person you’re speaking to and can damage relationships in the long term. Avoid using them to keep conversations flowing and spirits raised.

Similarly, there are other ways of communicating that can indicate a lack of sincerity. Verbal behaviours such as telling someone you’re ‘being honest with them’ or ‘that you’re trying to be frank’, can indicate that you may not have been completely honest in the past, or that you may be suggesting your counterpart is being intentionally dishonest.

Steer clear of this use of language; it can be damaging to the relationship you are maintaining and may put people on the defensive. This is something that can lead to tension and a breakdown in communication further down the line; and of course, because we’re now all communicating online, this is something that can be all-the-harder to recover from in the future.

Don’t let meeting standards slip online

If you are hosting a business meeting online, don’t let your normal standards slip, especially when it comes to having a proper agenda, as well as an effective meeting manager or chairperson. At the best of times, meetings can get hijacked by the need of everyone in the room to prove their worth and have their say. However, an effective meeting manager can focus on managing the discussion rather than taking part in it, bringing people in who have something valuable to say but aren’t as confident to get in on the conversation, clarifying information so that everyone involved is clear on the outcomes, as well as shutting out contributions that are not relevant. In the online world this can be done, arguably, even more efficiently than in the real world, thanks to video conferencing features such the ability to ‘highlight’ a particular participant, or share links or additional information. So, if you want a meeting to be effective and efficient, use the rich features of the technology available.

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About the Author
Rachel Massey

Written by Rachel Massey