Though virtual conversations will never be as powerful as being with someone live, your success depends on how fast you create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to say what is on their minds. You can create conditions necessary for growth and change by generating a sense of safety in your online conversations.
Online psychological safety
The brain is always evaluating how safe it is to offer thoughts and ideas, ask questions and mention mistakes. People must feel they will not be judged for what they share. Also, they must trust your intention is to be helpful, not to make them act in ways you or others would approve.
The psychologically safe environment you must create is more difficult in times of crisis and uncertainty, when people are experiencing high levels of fear and doubt. Social distancing is causing anxiety, depression and stress.The quality of your presence is more crucial to the effectiveness of your online conversations now more than ever.
Space psychology affects safety
In addition to your personal presence, the visible environment on your screen can increase or decrease warmth and safety. New School of Architecture and Design professor Dave Alan Kopec says lighting, colors, objects, and proportion have a direct impact on emotions and perceptions.What people see on their computer screen impacts their level of comfort.
Preparing your inner and outer space
Follow these five tips for managing your inner and outer space to establish a safe and trusting connection in your remote conversations:
1. Set the stage
Get dressed like it’s a regular workday. If people can see your room, make sure it is free of clutter. Zoom’s virtual backgrounds don’t always work, but if you use them, choose a professional image. Position yourself to have light in front of you so the image is smooth. Make sure you have enough power and bandwidth for undisrupted communications, or use the phone for your voice so you can display your video image. Look into the camera when you talk and listen. Have your head fill most of the screen so people feel you are with them, leaving a little breathing room between you and the top of the screen so you aren’t overwhelming. Turn off notifications on your phone and computer. Make sure there are no pets demanding attention.
2. Regulate your emotions
Release your stress before the call; you can’t hide it. Even virtually, they will feel your tension and judge you as lacking in warmth and engagement.
To release tenseness in your body, breathe in the emotions you want to feel, such as “curious and care.” If the conversation becomes emotionally challenging, maintain visual contact. It is better to state what you are feeling and why than trying to mask your emotions. Even fleeting changes in your expressions impact the conversation.
3. Be curious about their personal state before diving in
Inquire how they are feeling right now. Ask if anything that happened that day is still lingering in their thoughts and what they need to do to be present to the conversation. Even if they say they are ready to talk, give them space and time to shift their focus to what you think is most important.
4. Use reflective statements so they feel heard
The use of reflective statements help people sort through their thoughts and feel seen, heard and valued when they hear you replay their words. Use summarizing and paraphrasing to reflect what you hear. Ask about shifts in emotions you see them express. Start your sentences with, “So you are saying …,” “What seems to be most important to you is … ” or “What you were thinking when you got quiet and looked away?”
Your reflections create a deeper connection.
5. Be compassionately curious
Listen to their stories before pushing for solutions. Ask about the meaning of the words they choose to make sure you understand what they need right now. Determine if there is anything they are afraid they might lose. Help them examine the usefulness of their beliefs about the present situation and assumptions about the future. This will help them make decisions and plans.
Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., is a world-renowned expert on inspiring change through conversations. She has delivered programs in 41 countries and reached many more people online. She has four award-winning books: “The Discomfort Zone,” “Wander Woman,” “Outsmart Your Brain” and her latest, “Coach the Person, Not the Problem.” Learn more at her website.