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In the digital environment, people no longer have access to verbal and nonverbal cues. The lack of real-time verbal and nonverbal cues makes you vulnerable to digital predators because you don’t have access to the verbal and nonverbal cues that would ordinarily protect you from predators. With a few modifications, face-to-face communication skills can be modified to effectively and safely communicate in the digital environment.

Digital Communication Format

Digital communications are typically one-sided in that people usually communicate using a delayed turn-taking format. In other words, you receive an electronic communication, which may or may not be read upon receipt. Likewise, your response could be immediate or delayed. In either case, the communication is done without the aid of verbal and nonverbal cues to let you know if the message was understood correctly and, more importantly, how the respondent reacted emotionally to your communication.

Empathetic Statements

Empathetic statements bridge the verbal and nonverbal communication gap. Empathetic statements are constructed by listening to the speaker and using parallel language to mirror the message back to the speaker. Empathetic statements let speakers know that you are listening to them. The basic way to construct an empathetic statement is to begin with the words, “So you…” The words “So you…” keep the focus on the other person. The “So you…” can be dropped to form more sophisticated empathetic statements. Empathetic statements can also be formed by looking at the physical and emotional status of the speaker. For example, if you see a person smiling, you could form the following empathetic statements: “So you look happy today,” “Your having a good day,” or “So things are going your way.”  Similarly, if you see a person who displays nonverbal cues that suggest they are tired, you could use an empathetic statement that lets the person know that you recognize their physical state. Some empathetic statements could include, “So you look like you’re having a busy day,” “You look like you’re ready to go home,” or “You look a bit overwhelmed.”  Empathetic statements force you to pay attention to what people say and how they feel. The frequent use of empathetic statements creates an environment wherein relationships can grow and mature. The empathetic statement is a powerful tool to establish rapport in face-to-face encounters as well as in the digital environment.  

Reflected Responses

Words can mean different things to different people depending on the emotional value each person attaches to various words. In face-to-face communications, speakers receive instant feedback when the message is received in a manner not intended by the speaker. The speaker could then take action to immediately clarify the message to avoid any misunderstanding. Digital communications don’t provide the same benefit. When digital communications are misconstrued, people tend to respond defensively and sometimes aggressively to a misunderstood digital communication. Empathetic statements can be used to clarify any real or perceived misunderstanding without jeopardizing relationships. For example, you receive an email from a friend who wrote something you perceived as a slight. Instead of reacting to the perceived slight without knowing the true meaning of the sender’s message, you could use an empathetic statement such as “So you are suggesting (reflect the senders message using parallel language). Reflecting the sender’s message back to them gives them an opportunity to clarify the meaning of their message. Reflected responses can save much unnecessary stress on relationships, which are hard enough in a digital environment.

Common Ground   

We like people who share the same interests, hobbies, and values as we do. Common ground is one of the quickest ways to develop rapport. Common ground can be established in three ways, contemporaneous, temporal, and vicarious. Contemporaneous common ground is established when we share common interested in real-time. For example, if you ride horses and the person you’re with rides horses, you share a real-time interest. Real-time shared interests provide a fertile ground for conversation and relationship development. Temporal common ground occurs when we share common interests with the person we are with over time. For example, if I was in the military 30 years ago and the person I’m with is currently in the military, we have a shared interest over time. Although our similar experiences span time, we have a common place to begin communicating. Communication is the first step in the relationship building process. Vicarious common ground is the most versatile method to establish common ground. Vicarious common ground means that two people have a shared interest through a third party. For example, if the person I am with is a baker and I know nothing about baking, I can establish common ground through my brother who is a baker. The third party, my brother, connects me with the person I am talking to. Vicarious common ground is used when we have very little in common with the person we are talking to. Vicarious common ground is a powerful tool to quickly develop rapport, especially in the business environment when encounters are brief. To foster a digital relationship, spend your time looking for common ground that you share with the person you are communicating with.

 Allow People To Flatter Themselves

Direct flattery often sounds phony and insincere. A better way to flatter people is to allow them to flatter themselves. People rarely miss an opportunity to flatter themselves. Self-flattery is the sincerest form of flattery. Developing ways for people to flatter themselves is more difficult than direct flattery because you must pay attention to what the person you’re with says and does. Like empathetic statements you can practice allowing people to flattery throughout the day. For example, when you go out to eat and the wait staff serving you looks really busy, you could say, “It takes a person with a lot of organization skill to wait tables during lunch rush.” You did not directly flatter the wait staff but, rather, allowed the person to say to themselves, “Yeah, I am one of those people and yes, I am doing a good job.” The wait staff will give themselves a quick psychological pat on the back and consequently they feel good about themselves. According to the Golden Rule of Friendship, if you want people to like you, make them feel good about themselves. Allowing people to flatter themselves is an effective way to let people know that you recognize their efforts and acknowledge their skills without sounding insincere. During digital communications, look for ways to highlight the other person’s skills and abilities and construct ways to allow them to flatter themselves.

Too Much Too Soon

Another disadvantage of digital communication is that people tend to reveal too much personal information too quickly. In delayed communications there are no nonverbal cues to let the writers know that they are revealing too much personal information. In face-to-face encounters, relationships grow as personal information is slowly revealed.  Digital relationships tend to grow more rapidly because people don’t have the constraint of nonverbal cues to let them know to slow the pace of personal revelations. Digital relationships often feel emotionally intense because too much personal information was revealed too quickly, but the emotional intensity is superficial and has little depth.

Meet face-to-face As Soon As Possible

When people communicate with people they haven’t seen, they tend to form an impression of how they think the person looks based on their words alone. The longer the relationship goes, the more entrenched the imagined image of the person becomes. When they finally meet, the imagined image of the person usually doesn’t comport with the way the person really looks. This phenomenon regularly occurs when people talk on the telephone with people they never met. When they finally meet the other person for the first time, the imagined impression or that person based on voice alone rarely comports with reality. Information obtained from digital communications is more prone to developing false images of the people we communicate with because digital communications lack the verbal intonation found in telephone conversations. Additionally, digital communications lack nonverbal cues.

The difference between the imagined person and the real person can be severe enough to cause the relationship to end abruptly. This disadvantage can be avoided by arranging a virtual face-to-face meeting using a video chat format as soon as practical after meeting someone in the digital world. A face-to-face meeting allows people to once again observe the nonverbal cues of the person they are communicating with and to evaluate verbal intonations of the conversation. Virtual meetings combine the advantages of face-to-face communication with the best of digital communication. If the person you are communicating with refuses to engage in a video chat, something is very wrong. Discontinue communicating with the person and seek someone else who does not have anything to hide. Ignoring this red flag will likely end in a relationship disaster.

Truth Bias     

People tend to automatically believe what they see, hear, or read. This phenomenon is called the truth bias. The truth bias is particularly effective in digital communications because people have fewer verbal and nonverbal cues to judge the veracity of digital communications. People are more likely to fall prey to digital predators than to predators they encounter in face-to-face encounters. The spell of the truth bias is broken when people have a reason not to believe what the say, heard, or read. Use judicial skepticism to protect yourself from digital predators. When in doubt, ask “Why?”  

If someone frequently communicates with you, ask “Why?”  If the person does not want to participate in a video chat, ask “Why?” If a person flatters you or allows you to flatter yourself, ask “Why?”  If the person has too much in common with you, ask “Why?” Continue to ask “Why” until the relationship is built on trust and the other person’s words and actions can be verified by reality, not wishful thinking, imagined images or fantasies. Not all people you digitally communicate with are predators, but all predators use the same communication skills to develop a relationship with you as do sincere people. The difference is predators want to take advantage of you emotionally or financially. Protect yourself; always ask “Why?”     

Communicating in a digital environment has some distinct disadvantages. Spoken words evaporate into thin air, but written words last forever. People are more likely to forget a spoken slight, but the harsh words you write are an everlasting reminder and may reignite relationship discord sometime in the future. Don’t do anything in the digital environment that you would not do in a fact-to-face environment. Be aware of the disadvantages of digital communications. Think twice before your write. Using a few simple techniques, you can protect yourself from falling prey to digital predators by exercising judicial skepticism. Always ask “Why?”

For additional tips and tools to initiate, maintain, or repair relationships refer to The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People.

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