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Book Review: Can You Hear Me? How to Connect to People in a Virtual World, by Nick Morgan
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By Kim Oanh Nguyen-Lam, Ph.D. (LDS 382)

Nick Morgan was our opening speaker at the 2019 FEIAA Executive Forum on May 21, 2019. Having read his latest book on virtual communication, I greatly anticipated hearing him speak—and he didn’t disappoint!

Morgan started by identifying the five basic problems of virtual communication: the lack of feedback, the lack of empathy, the lack of control, the lack of emotion, and the lack of connection and commitment. He showed us how, through communicating via e-mails, phones, or even videoconferences, we’ve lost the ability to empathize and connect with the audience. Because we can’t read people’s emotions and body language, we can’t get their feedback either. 

What results from most online communication is a loss of focus and commitment. The truth is, we cannot achieve via online communication what we could in a face-to-face conversation. As leaders, we are less effective and less impactful when we rely on online communication without understanding its shortcomings. As Morgan stated, “Every form of virtual communication strips out the emotional subtext of our communications to a greater or lesser extent. Every one!” To close his talk, Morgan shared with us specific strategies and approaches that he called “practical fixes” to overcome the shortcomings in online communication. All forum attendees received a copy of Morgan’s book. I would highly recommend that everyone delve into this book to enhance not just their online but their everyday communication skills. 

Communication is indeed a lot more than simply understanding the spoken words. Consider this: you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language and you approach a stranger on the street for directions. You might not understand a word of what that person is saying, but from body language—gestures and movements, facial expressions, tone of voice—you can immediately tell whether the person is friendly or threatening, helpful or hostile, and you instinctively decide on your next course of action. 

As a communication coach, Morgan has made the subconscious and implicit decoding of the emotional subtext in communication conscious and explicit. He recognizes that decisions are more often made based on emotions and less often on logical reasonings. He has worked with Fortune 500 CEOs and presidents to improve their communication and, in turn, their relations with employees and stockholders. He has coached people to give congressional testimony, to appear on the Today show, and to deliver unforgettable TED talks.

In his book, Morgan draws on this deep and practical expertise to help us improve our communication and relationships in the online world. It is a huge challenge, because the virtual world is unnaturally voided of all the critical elements essential to better understand and build trust with people when we communicate. Many of us can’t fathom how to get our work done without the use of e-mails, phone conferences, Skypes, or webinars. We truly believe that virtual communication enables us to be more efficient and productive; yet, we never stop to think of its shortcomings and downsides when compared with face-to-face communication, even though we are often both producers and consumers of virtual communication. 

Throughout the book, Morgan shares many relatable examples of how most people tend to zone out or multitask when communicating in the virtual world. During conference calls, we often engage in activities that we would not do in face-to-face meetings—e-mailing, texting, composing Tweets, surfing the web, posting on Facebook, preparing dinner, feeding the dog, or even attending another conference call . . . things that most of us are guilty of doing at one time or another. His research indicates that the absence of human emotions makes virtual communication unbearable, ineffective, and unproductive, and the cost of not mitigating the problem is high. 

This absence leads to miscommunications, misunderstandings, and a huge amount of do-overs, workarounds and relationship repairs. It’s expensive. It’s inefficient. And the cost in fractured relationships, missed opportunities, and lost connections are incalculable. Because we make decisions with our emotions, moreover, when we take them out of the communication, the audio conference, or the webinar, it becomes almost impossible to make good decisions when we’re immersed in the virtual stream. (Prologue, page xi)

Morgan’s book aims to help people avoid the personal, professional, and financial costs associated with virtual miscommunications. The book’s straightforward organization makes the content informative and relevant. Chapter summaries offer a great way to review key arguments and recall significant points. Morgan likens virtual communication to a new language for which we need to learn a new set of rules and codes of conduct. I believe that many of his points could definitely help us improve not only our virtual communications but also our face-to-face interactions. 

Below are some direct quotes from the book that highlight Morgan’s key points:

  • We are a little blind, a little deaf, and a little less human in every virtual setting. (page 46)
  • Put us in the virtual world and we’re shortchanged on the implicit feedback that is so important for getting us through our days. . . . The e-mail that conveys a sarcastic tone the sender didn’t intend. The conference call that left everyone believing the project is dead in the water. The video conference that makes you less comfortable about joining the team. Trolling. And so on. (page 29)
  • Just try to deprive someone of their mobile phone. The very thought has given rise to a new social disease. As many as 66% of the adults may suffer from it. For some, the anxiety is so severe it causes panic attacks. It’s called nomophobia. No-mobile-phone-phobia. (page 34) 
  • In general, workplaces that make an effort to put back into the workplace some of the absent human emotions—the emotions so easily conveyed in face-to-face communications, the “I care” kind of feelings—reduce absenteeism and burnout, and increase employee engagement. (page 6)

Morgan concludes with five desired future outcomes of virtual communication; they include ways that could bring together communities of people with different ideas, faiths, purposes, and meanings, built on common ground and trust. 

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