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How face-to-face communication helps at work
Sunder Ramachandran
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December 13, 2006

Today, most of your clients, colleagues and stakeholders are just a phone call or email away -- technology has made communication that simple. However, while tools like telephones and computers score high on convenience and speed, they lack the warmth and emotion that face-to-face communication provides.

In my earlier features, I have highlighted the importance of telephone etiquette, making use of online networking and business chat etiquette. However, there are some occasions where you must revive the by-now forgotten art of face-to-face communication.

Appreciating colleagues

In the words of Helen Keller, 'We are all walking with a signboard on our forehead which reads -- 'Appreciate me'.' It seems we have replaced the pat on the back with 'Thank you' and 'Good job' emails. But there is nothing that motivates someone more than seeing their boss walk up to them and appreciate them in front of everyone.

Go to your colleague's cubicle and congratulate them on the great report they sent or the presentation they made recently. I remember one of my ex-bosses who used to call us team members to his cabin just to say 'thanks' and pat our backs. The team immediately took a liking to him as most people expect a warning or feedback when the boss invites them to their cabin.

"It's difficult to build rapport over an email; I would feel much better if my boss appreciates me in person," says Ashok Krishnan, a CA with Nestle.

Criticising or providing feedback

When you provide feedback over an email or a phone call, the receiver may have a completely different perception about its relevance. This effect is amplified when you are not communicating face-to-face. The reader or listener may think you are cold and indifferent and that's why you avoided meeting them in person to discuss the issue. A face-to-face meeting gives you the opportunity to put your point across, while being sensitive and diplomatic at the same time.

"I have noticed that colleagues often use emails to avoid confronting the real issue. If someone fails to meet their target, I would prefer they tell me in person than offer an explanation over email," says Vidhanshu Bansal, a director with Pixel Webtech.

Assigning new responsibility

There is a great risk of the message getting diluted when a responsibility gets delegated through email or a phone call. Don't be surprised if your team does not show a sense of ownership or complete tasks on time if you are not communicating face-to-face. Nonverbal communication, such as tone of voice, facial gestures and eye contact help individuals understand the importance of a task and the need to complete it on time.

"We rely on conference calls, video conferencing and online meetings but, from my experience, there's nothing more impactful than meeting the team in person," says Delhi-based Ashu Gosh, a manager with Aviar IT Consulting.

Damage control with clients

If you haven't provided the product or service the client expected, you are putting your relationship with the client at stake. An apology mail would not suffice in a sensitive issue like this. Go to the client's office, if possible, without them having to call you for an explanation, and reassure them that the confidence they demonstrated when they gave you business was not misplaced. Your client would be pleasantly surprised that you took the time to come and meet them, especially when things went wrong.

"I used to interact on almost a daily basis with a client over emails without ever figuring out whether the person was male or female. When a report I was supposed to send got delayed, I made a rude comment about a female colleague which offended the client who happened to be a lady herself," says Deepak M.L, a manager with Convergys.

Resolving conflicts

Workplace conflicts are common in most organisations. The lack of interpersonal communication only worsens the situation. It's important to remember that 55 per cent of meaning in an interaction comes from facial and body language and 38 per cent comes from vocal inflection. Only seven per cent of an interaction's meaning is derived from the words themselves. So, trying to resolve a conflict over email or a phone call is often a bad idea.

"A colleague complained about another colleague and copied the senior management on the mail. I was surprised to see that mail translating into a flood of mails providing and seeking explanation. The person who sent the original mail was just one floor above the person who was at the receiving end. I had to sit down with both of them in person to resolve the conflict," says Kailasam R, a manager with Lufthansa Airlines.

Your communication style says a lot about you as a professional. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'You are always under examination by people around you, awarding or denying you very high prizes when you least think of it.' So leave the comfort of your cubicle and build trustworthy relationships by communicating face to face.

-- Sunder Ramachandran is a managing partner at WCH Solutions (http://www.wchsolutions.com), a training solutions organisation. He can be reached at sunder@wchsolutions.com.

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