Debra Benton explains the art of the virtual handshake

The executive coach and consultant offers tips for doing business in the digital world

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

Beyond establishing that sort of positive energy around communications, Benton's book also explores more difficult scenarios, such as email communication, which can be subject to misinterpretation. One main tip she gives is to just slow down. "There's speed in technology and you might respond real quickly and say something you didn't mean to say or you just have a typo" that leads to miscommunication, she said.

It's often easier to say things in email that you'd never say in person, she added. Again, the ease and speed of the medium can lead to a kind of bravery (or bravado) that can be exacerbated by the ability to in effect hide behind the keyboard. "It's like when you get behind the wheel in a car and you honk and yell at people. You would never do that in the office or to your family, but there's that anonymity."

And the result can cause enormous conflict. "You may not immediately see the effect, if that person [who receives the email] isn't confident enough to respond, then it can fester into a big thing," she said, noting an anecdote from the book in which a CEO sent a compliment to an employee that was taken entirely the wrong way. In that instance, however, the employee quickly replied "what the hell do you mean by that?" While that response took the CEO aback, he was able to then sort out where and how his intended compliment had backfired and quickly rectified the misunderstanding.

One of the most consistently surprising things she has found over her years as a consultant is "how truly easy something can be misinterpreted and if it's misinterpreted it is negatively -- seldom is something misinterpreted optimistically. The irony is that we have so many ways to communicate and yet we still do it so poorly."

In fact, technology can be an enabler of poor communication. "Cowardly people do hide behind the monitor or the keyboard instead of finding the courage to say the difficult thing in person. If you're working in different parts of the world, you can't always say it in person, but if it is something that is so important then you better get on a plane and go correct it, especially if you're the leader," she said.

At the least, those who work in the virtual world need to pick up the telephone more often, particularly because one purpose of communication is "to ventilate," which isn't good to do using digital media, she said.

The book is full of real-life examples of communications that were handled poorly and well, as well as common-sense tips and tricks such as making sure that the background is professional and free of household clutter for a videoconference from your home. While that would seem to go without saying, people have told Benton they've seen, for instance, a bra draped over a chair and a cat's used litterbox in a videoconference.

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