In this age of digital communication, the phrase action speaks louder than words has never been more true. Constantly plugging into an electronic device leaves us little time to plug into ourselves and others. With businesses prioritising the use of digital communication tools such as emails, messaging apps like Slack, and video conference software such as Skype, how important is having an actual human connection?
Master the art of paying attention
Mastering the art of paying attention may sound easy but in our culture of multi-tasking, actually sitting and listening to someone without a phone or tablet is considered almost unnatural. Bill Clinton, infamous for winning friends and influencing people by giving them his undivided attention, is an excellent example of the importance of human connection.
"He has the ability to connect with an audience and then turn around and make the person who was helping with the slideshow feel like they’re the most important person there," reflected author Geoffrey Tumlin.
Now imagine if Clinton’s speeches were sent as emails. Or if his meetings with world leaders were conducted over Skype – would he still be as influential? Would people be moved as they are today from meeting with him face-to-face?
Paying attention through personal interactions is vital not just for public figures, but in any business; whether it’s building professional relationships, pitching a new design, or simply trying to sell something. A human connection will make the difference between just having a person listen, and being able to actually influence him.
Avoiding the risk of misinterpretation
Whilst Mr Clinton has proven to be a face-to-face expert, Mrs Clinton was recently in hot water once again over a digital faux pas. It all started shortly before becoming Secretary of State in 2009 when she used her home server to set up an email account for both business and personal correspondence. This caused outrage as it meant she had total control over the fate of any e-mail sent or received and was the sole 'decider' of whether it included classified information.
Putting aside her intentions for a moment, Mrs Clinton’s improper use of digital communication illustrates the importance of being extremely careful with 'non-human' interactions. There is no doubt that some of the chaos could have been avoided if the servers were government owned, and more importantly, if meetings were set up to deliver sensitive or classified information.
In fact, since we now communicate primarily through writing, any context that would normally be given through physical cues is lost. Without the ability to pick up on gestures, tone and nuance over an email, things may be misinterpreted.
Almost all of us at some point have sounded annoyed in an email even though we were trying to be casual, friendly or sarcastic. Although emojis and thumbs-up icons bring a sense of fun, it is difficult to decipher what is meant by these simple messages.
Human connection is essential in reducing the risk of misinterpretation. On a small scale, a misunderstanding due to a poorly written email can lead to small mistakes but the implications can also mean missed opportunities, unsuccessful deals, or even a badly translated sign.
Take for example this unfortunate sign in Wales (England). Since all official road signs are written in both English and Welsh, city officials in Swansea emailed their in-house translation department for help translating a road sign. They didn’t realise that the Welsh reply was an automated out-of-office email, and proceeded to print and put up a road sign that in Welsh says "I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated". This embarrassing error could have easily been avoided if they picked up the phone and spoke to a person in the department.
Striking a balance
Using digital tools such as emails, especially for communication is inevitable as it allows you to work remotely and stay in touch with clients and partners around the world. Nevertheless, having phones and tablets at your disposal raises the issue of finding a balance between human connection and the technological needs of modern day businesses.
This idea isn't reserved solely for businesses; even Afghan soldiers of the Taliban recognised the importance of human interaction and often reverted back to passing written notes with couriers in order to make sure their message was understandable and off Western intelligence’s radar.
The future is human
It is fair to say that nothing can replace human interaction. Being in the same room as a client, shaking hands with a colleague or simply having a coffee with a new potential business partner gives you an accurate understanding of a social situation without having to guess what is meant through digital correspondence.
The subtlety of body language means that even the most advanced virtual reality technology cannot yet give us an insight into sensing or getting a vibe from another person without actually being there with them.
Yes, technology is important but there is a need for balance. The notion that digital interactions are better may be an illusion. For a business to succeed, we can rely on technology for efficiency, but certainly not to give us human traits such as trust, honesty and integrity. These are only present through human interaction.