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Overcoming Communication Barriers in a Masked COVID-19 World

Time to take emotional intelligence to the next level.

Source: iluistrator/Shutterstock

One of the outcomes of our masked populace during COVID-19 has been a forced, nuanced way of communicating. And that has resulted in a daily abundance of misinterpretation, if not frustration. But as John Adams once said, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” The masked communication barriers we face on a daily basis could actually present an unprecedented chance to hone a much more sophisticated degree of emotional intelligence that will far outlast the pandemic.

The mask has become a convenient way for many to obscure or dull down their emotions. But there is a more rewarding, self-aware option. You can take proactive steps to better understand others—and be better understood, for the remainder of the pandemic.

Why Read Through the Mask?

As we speak with others, we instinctively watch their reaction. Normally, we are at least subconsciously observing their full facial expression to gauge their response, as we continue the conversation.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, much of that data has been missing—we have often been shooting in the dark. As discourse continues, both parties seem to be building on a shaky communications ground—not the ideal scenario for building a trusting bond. A seemingly innocuous comment without the benefit of a smile can easily be taken wrong.

Miscommunications are not just relegated to strangers at the grocery store. It can happen at work, in a social setting, or even at home while observing social distancing. Clearly, there’s so much more to a conversation than what is said; yet in the current environment, a sigh, frown, or smile is an unavailable luxury.

But here is where the opportunity lies.

By focusing on certain non-verbal cues and expressions, you can access valuable information. You’ll enhance the quality of your communications, not just now, but post-pandemic and maybe forever. World-class sales professionals have mastered these skills for decades. It just never was an imperative for the rest of us.

Non-Verbal Cues You Can Observe

1. Eye expressions. A fascinating study conducted by Cornell professor Adam Anderson in early 2017 shed light on why the eyes really are a window to the soul. He found that people interpret deepest emotions through the eye’s expressions. (This lends credence to how much value they really do hold in a masked environment.)

Interestingly, as the Cornell Chronicle explains, “People in the study consistently associated narrowed eyes—which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus—with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes—which expand our field of vision—with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe.”

There have also been studies that suggest the eyes are a more transparent indicator than a smile or words; such as a person who says one thing, but whose darting eyes say another.

Nevertheless, there are a few basic parameters you can follow, such as: Is the person looking you in the eye with interest, or are they distracted? Are they looking down? Are they scowling? Are eyebrows raised? How does this match up with their comments, tone of voice, and gestures?

2. Gestures. This is a good time for your emotional intelligence to kick into high gear. And part of that is to watch all non-verbal cues. How is their posture? Are they looking defensive with arms crossed? Are they animated with their gestures?

3. Level of engagement. Is the person leaning in? Are they fidgeting with their phone or looking at their watch? Are they nodding as you speak?

How You Can Break Through the Communications Mask Barrier

When most of your face is hidden, the path of least resistance can be to shut down and put forth minimal effort. But we all know what happens when communication short-cuts are taken. Backpedaling and walking back can ensue, and still, the damage can be irreversible.

Just as it’s worth making an extra effort to read the emotional state of those around you, you can mitigate misunderstandings in your own communications during these difficult times.

Here are some non-verbal and verbal actions you might consider:

1. Use positive, supportive gestures. During the pandemic, masks can make it difficult for others to understand you at times. Even worse, you may be too far away to be heard at all. At times like this, a thumbs up can be the perfect solution. If you want to show extra appreciation, you can pat your hand on your heart. (You’ve seen entertainers show thanks that way, so why not try it?)

There’s always the fist pump, elbow bump ... and peace sign for those unique misunderstandings. General, positive body language will go a long way, too, such as good eye contact, leaning forward, nodding, and avoiding distraction.

2. Be clear, speak loudly, and repeat if necessary. Aside from non-verbal communications, this is a great time to practice being clear and concise in what you say. Because of the obvious mask barrier, some words may be missed—so turn up the volume. Be especially sensitive to those with hearing impairments in how to best communicate. For them, masks are especially challenging because they make lipreading impossible.

3. Use humor, but avoid sarcasm. Use humor to defuse tense situations (and there are plenty of those to go around in 2020!). But if you don’t know your audience, be careful with jokes that may be misconstrued when you're donning a mask.

Of course, your actions can speak louder than words or non-verbal messages combined. Being gracious at this time when people are a little more on edge goes a long way. No one was ever accused of being “too courteous.” Go out of your way to help others, give people the benefit of the doubt, and be flexible in your means of achieving goals.

COVID-19 brought with it unprecedented changes and it still remains a focus of our lives. But it also offers a unique opportunity to become more adept at reading others—and communicating better. That can build emotional intelligence skills that last a lifetime.

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