Foster Conversational Closeness at a Distance
How to create a sense of psychological connection despite physical barriers.
Posted March 30, 2020
"Our closeness is what makes us special. Our acceptance, our openness is what makes us special. It's what makes us feel so connected one to another. It's what makes us so accepting of one another. It is the closeness that makes us the human beings that we are.” — New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo1
Millions of people are asking the same question right now: How can I maintain a healthy social life without being able to physically interact with others?
While this social issue may appear to be novel, people of all walks of life, from military families to traveling professionals, have successfully navigated the hardships of long-distance relationships for centuries. Before the advent of social media, the long-distance relationship survived on the "Letter to Home."
Handwritten affection, shared stories, and even the occasional photo allowed partners to maintain a connection at a distance. If you've ever written or received a message from a loved one who is far away, then you'll have an appreciation for the saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." As it turns out, there is more than a speck of truth to this age-old proverb.
In an international collaborative project, researchers Dr. Crystal Jiang (City University of Hong Kong) and Jeffrey T. Hancock, Ph.D. (Cornell University) tested a popular relationship paradigm: Is the challenge of long-distance relationships (LDRs) and the quality of relationship dynamics based on maintaining adequate levels of intimacy and trust?2
Intimacy is a sense of affinity with others, and it is a staple of any interpersonal relationship. Whether we connect physically, emotionally, intellectually, or romantically, the level of intimacy in a relationship serves as a quality indicator. Without the ability to connect in person, where we can exchange visceral energy, long-distance partners must adapt to a new plane of conversational mediums and practices in order to maintain intimacy. How does the brain adapt to distance?
Success from a Distance
As it turns out, and as many experienced long-distance lovers can vouch, LDRs can equal or even surpass self-reported levels of trust and satisfaction when compared to geographically close couples.2
What wonderful news. Despite the distance at hand, partners can find ways to maintain healthy relationships. By adapting to the current environment, our brains allow us to maintain resilience in the face of adversity. Whether you are a couple at bay, friends apart, or a newly appointed remote team, these are the kinds of interaction dynamics that will ensure the success of LDRs.
- Addressing uncertainties promotes the quality of our conversations. Uncertainty is the crucial fulcrum between distrust and trust. When our brains are uncertain of something, we often search for an explanation that will anchor us in certainty, even if the answer produces a negative reality. For example, if you are nervous about time and distance affecting commitment, tell your partner. Self-disclosure ensures that your partner has a fair chance to address your uncertainties and validate your reality, the first step towards a successful conversation.
- "The medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan espoused in the book by the same name. Synchronous forms of communications, such as FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, provide us with the richest form of conversational dynamics aside from real life. Being able to see and hear conversational partner(s) gives us the feedback needed to synch up, a critical component of successful conversations. While asynchronous forms of communications, such as text or e-mail, do not create real-time feedback, they provide us with a platform for sharing that engages our brain’s capacity for creative connection. Emojis, GIFs, and love notes are all amazing ways to express yourself and connect with one another.
- Normalize the distance through shared activities. At the end of the day, humans connect and learn best through play. Having fun by sharing a similar interest, hobby, or activity can create a sense of togetherness that boosts Conversational Intelligence®. When we feel that we are "in it together" we are more likely to lower our guards, which promotes healthy social engagement. This inclusive form of sharing works for partners, teams, and even entire organizations.
The DNA of Digital
Humans are designed to connect, and this need is more powerful than anything else in the social universe. When isolated from others, the social pain we experience physically hurts! Without connection through interpersonal relationships, a human cannot thrive, even if all other basic survival needs are met.
Today, the power of digital technology allows us to be many places at once, creating new forms of culture that are transforming relationships across the globe. Establishing trust through digital communications requires time and practice. By understanding the structure, or DNA, of our conversations we can implement conversational strategies to bring individuals together and form dynamic relationships in digital environments.
Dialogue: Healthy conversations allow individuals to organize within a framework, communicate and coordinate through feedback. These conversations are associated with the release of oxytocin and establish trust to amplify the positive channels of communication while dampening the negative ones. Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone produced in the brain that enhances our sensitivity to emotional stimulus and promotes our abilities to partner and bond with others.
Unhealthy conversations become one-sided, egocentric, and fail to identify positive channels of communication due to a lack of transparency. These conversations are associated with the release of the hormone cortisol, which triggers distrust. This loss of 'shared borders' triggers our territorial behaviors and sends our brains in to defend and protect, as opposed to connect and grow.
Navigation: Navigation is a cognitive process that requires the ability to plan routes. Navigating means visualizing different routes in our minds and planning how to get there. Even though we’re separated by space, we can develop relationships online. For example, for the last three days, my mother has spent the traditional happy hour video-chatting with her best friends, making excellent conversations over recipe exchanges and "Quarantinis."
Active Listening: Why do people who hear the same speech often walk away with different impressions? Every so often, our brains take a pause to evaluate and process information. When we listen to confirm, we are often taking a pause to pay attention to our own thoughts rather than our partner's words. By shutting off the noise in the attic, we can create a neutral conversational space and really connect with what others are saying. When we listen to connect we expand the conversational space, allowing their aspirational self to emerge.
This transformational form of conversation allows us to remain open to influence, establish trust, and strengthen our bonds. The stronger the relationship is between the speaker and the listener, the more successful the conversation will be.
By Nicklas Balboa and Richard D. Glaser, Ph.D.
1. Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Cuomo: Amid Covid-19 Pandemic: 'Our Closeness Makes Us Vulnerable. But It's True That Your Greatest Weakness Is Also Your Greatest Strength'. (2020, March 25). Retrieved from https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-gov…
2. Jiang, L. C., & Hancock, J. T. (2013, May 11). Absence Makes the Communication Grow Fonder: Geographic Separation, Interpersonal Media, and Intimacy in Dating Relationships. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jcom.12029