Communicate with Empathy in Remote Collaboration

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Learn how to communicate empathetically when working remotely. Empathetic communication is important for managing remote teams, collaborating with empathy, and nurturing interpersonal interactions.

You’re working from home and things are going swimmingly. Today is busy, but you can handle busy.

Then, suddenly, your computer starts spazzing. This is stressful because you are working on a time-sensitive deliverable. You had everything on track but now you don’t.

Meanwhile, you get a text from your boss saying she needs you to put everything on pause and help with a separate project.

And as if things couldn’t get any worse, a colleague is now calling you about who knows what.

Can’t they see you are swamped and feeling overwhelmed?

Well, no, actually. They can’t.

The fact that they can’t highlights one of the greatest drawbacks to remote work: when you aren’t in an office with someone, it is much harder to gauge their mental state and emotional status.

This deficiency can lead to a slew of complications, including the one we just illustrated.

Today we are going to discuss how we can overcome this in-person deficiency and become more effective at long-distance empathy.

If you’re managing remote teams, collaborating remotely, or simply care about the wellbeing of colleagues who aren’t in the office with you, then stick around. 

Remote work is becoming increasingly commonplace, and while it comes with many advantages, one of the major drawbacks of remote work is the inherent difficulty in reading the emotional state of our colleagues and clients.

When we are interacting with people in-person, we can read their body language and facial expressions. Coupled with their tone of voice and posture, we get over 93% of the information we need to understand how they are feeling. The remaining 7% is their words.

These numbers were not pulled from thin air, by the way. They come from an in-depth study by Professor Albert Mehrabian on the complex dynamics of in-person communication.

So the challenge when working remotely is to overcome the fact that, whenever we send an email or text, 93% of the information we subconsciously communicate in-person is excluded.

And it actually goes beyond that. When we’ve recently interacted with someone, their image is fresh in our minds. Research shows that we are more likely to treat those people kindly. 

Of course, the opposite also applies – when we haven’t recently interacted with someone, their image in our minds has faded, and we view them as less familiar to us, and thus we are less likely to behave favorably toward them.

So how do we handle this?

There are a number of strategies we can deploy. In this lesson we’ll discuss two.

The first strategy is pretty straight forward: whenever possible, take the opportunity to engage with people through video chat or by phone. 

Now this is not to say that you shouldn’t also communicate by email or Slack. Those are excellent mediums for conveying detailed instructions and creating an informative paper trail. But if you’re sending out an important email, follow it up with a call to see if the recipient had any questions. Or if you are assigning something to someone whom you haven’t seen in a while, see if they are available for a Zoom call to go through the specifics in person.

During those calls, there is no magic to what you say. Simply hearing their voice, and them hearing yours, and if it’s a video chat, seeing each other’s faces, will do wonders for reinforcing the sense of understanding and camaraderie between you. And if you stray into a little small talk, let it happen! That’s part of what makes us human, so savor it.

The second strategy is to dial up your empathy meter to 11. 

This goes for when you are making those voice and video calls, but it also applies to your written communications.

If you sense even the slightest bit of frustration or anxiety when interacting with someone, don’t ignore it. Explore it. See if you can get to the bottom of it. Maybe the person is feeling overwhelmed because they have too much on their plate. Maybe something stressful is going on at home. Either way, by identifying these signs of distress, you can act accordingly by assigning a task to someone else or offering to lend a helping hand.

Now when you are operating with this heightened sensitivity, it’s possible that you will run into false positives. For example, what you detected as frustration might instead be simply the result of rushed writing. That’s why it is important to not make assumptions. Probe the situation and get the information you need to know how they are feeling, one way or another. 

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So there you have it, two powerful ways to integrate empathy into your remote collaboration. 

Let’s quickly recap:

  • Email, texting, and other forms of written communication inherently lack empathy
  • We treat people better when their image is fresh in our heads
  • You can refresh that image with a short voice or video call
  • Be on high alert for signs of distress when interacting with your colleagues and address the issue as soon as you encounter it

By embracing a more empathetic style of remote collaboration, you lay a foundation for happier and more productive teams. When we know more about how our teammates are feeling, workloads are better balanced, and moral is higher.

And as is the case with most of our strategies for remote work, these methods are equally effective when you are in the same office! Empathetic communication is a surefire way to improve the quality of your professional interactions and build stronger bonds with the people you work with.

So the next time you’re working from home, don’t be afraid to put a little more feeling into it 😊

closing sign off

So now that I've shared our thoughts, I’d love to hear your own ideas for collaborating with empathy. Do you think it’s important to know how your colleagues are feeling? Have you been in situations where empathy was lacking? How did it make you feel?

Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments down below.

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And remember, the writeup of these lessons are always available here on our blog at explearning.co/blog.

With that, have an awesome week, Explearners. 

Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.

Happy Explearning ⚡