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Jo O'Sullivan

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Can we communicate just as well on Zoom ?

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Can we communicate just as well on Zoom (online)?

I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Elizabeth Stokoe of Loughborough University who has extensively researched how communication works in diverse arenas such as police interviews, communicating with people in crisis, the medical setting and neighbourhood dispute mediation. Her work in relation to the pacing and timing of communication (e.g., the gaps between turns; the pauses between words) has really helped my work as a divorce mediator and collaborative practitioner.  She scientifically analyses the words and phrases we use in conversation to see what works and what doesn’t. She has published many articles and journals and books including Talk: The Science of Conversation.

During the Covid pandemic there has been an increased use of Zoom (or similar but I’ll just use Zoom for ease) during the pandemic.  My practice is now wholly online and I am very tempted to leave it as such. I had always been resistant to using online platforms, instead preferring to be physically in the same room. I imagined that some sort of ‘magic’ happened when we were all physically present (Face to Face or F2F).

Now, it’s not often I say this…. but I was wrong. 

My experience is that Zoom works just as well as in person meetings.  Perhaps even better in some circumstances.

This blog was prompted by Liz’s short LinkedIn ‘A short piece on the ‘quality’ of ‘face to face’ versus online communication.’ On 11 August 2020. 

So, Liz, my reading of your article is that in some specified circumstances communication online is just as good as in person.  Could you summarise them here?

Liz: It’s not so much that there are specific circumstances, more that if we start to address the question of ‘quality’ from the starting point of that, and how, people do things in social interaction, we see that what we do online is often identical to how we do it on the phone, in synchronous writing (e.g., Messenger), or in-person. In the LinkedIn piece, I describe how we do actions through language – greetings, closings, questions, requests, offers, etc. When we start with what people are (trying to ) do, many of the differences we think are present aren’t there – and this is from online/F2F to gender or ‘cultural’ differences. There ARE differences, of course, in the way we do things. If you think of a request, we can say “I need an appointment”, “would it be possible to make an appointment”, “I was just wondering if there are any appointments”, “can I make an appointment please” … All different, and, as conversation analysts show, they are systematically different depending on a range of contingencies. But these are not, typically, because of modality. The ‘how are yous’ at the start of encounters are a good example. We do them and don’t do them, for various reasons, in all modalities. At the more formal end, Chairs of meetings nominate or fail to nominate next speakers in the same ways.

Jo: So, what you are saying it’s not the modality, or rather whether it’s F2F, on the phone or on Zoom it’s more what you do in those forums. Do you think there are any advantages to being about to ‘see’ each other, assuming people normally have sight….?

Yes, gaze and our ability to see each other (and everything else) is one of many resources we have to interact. You can’t point at your watch to request another person to “hurry up” without being able to establish mutual gaze. It would be difficult to acknowledge another driver who has just let you pull out if you can’t see them, and, during the current pandemic, we use gaze and our bodies to establish social distance. But you also don’t need to see people to talk in the dark, or on the phone.

Jo: I have noticed a slight change in the way I communicate online. I might ‘ham up’ an expression to make sure that my audience can see it!  We do communicate really well without being able to see each other, on the phone for example, as you say. I note on Twitter that many mediators and collaborative lawyers feel they are missing out on building rapport. But that isn’t my experience.  In many of my cases I have never actually met the person, I haven’t shaken their hand nor have I handed them a cafetiere of coffee.  But we are doing very well in getting to know each other. Many clients are relieved not to have to travel, find a parking space, get on a bus or train to meet me.  No dressing up or worry in the waiting room.  We all feel a little bit liberated. 

Do you have any top tips for those of us relying on Zoom to work with clients?

Obviously, a decent Internet connection and quiet physical surroundings are ideal. If you’re able, invest in good technology, including a high-quality webcam that can be positioned sensibly to maximise the ‘resources’ (physical, but also communicative) everyone has for interacting. We’ve all been in Zoom interactions with people where we’re looking at their forehead, up their nose, with the sun behind them casting them into silhouette, etc. These are simple things to fix. After that, be familiar with your remote platform and how it works, to minimise the burden on your client to have to learn things themselves.

The benefits you describe above are very real – no travel, the comfort of speaking from one’s own home, and so on. I’ve got lots of examples of ‘rapport’ being built in telephone calls, where one has fewer resources for interacting than online with video. Don’t forget that, in person or online, my top tip would also be not to buy into nebulous concepts like ‘rapport’. For me, ‘rapport’ is the outcome of an encounter, something you achieve if you’ve just had a smooth, minimal-misunderstanding, minimal burden conversation. You shouldn’t aim to ‘build rapport’ and then have an interaction. Focus on what the person wants and needs, and moving them through an encounter without having to keep asking for explanations of things they don’t understand, or asking what will happen next, or returning to a part of their story that was shut down earlier. These are the things that are important in any interaction, in any modality.

Thanks Liz, good communication is essential in any forum. Zoom is just fine for us to find out what our clients’ need and want.  I’ll stick with Zoom for now, as it's working very well indeed.