Magazine article Communication World

What's So Great about Face-to-Face? Technology May Be a Great Facilitator, but When a Communication Has Any Emotional Charge, a Face-to-Face Meeting Is the Most Effective Choice

Magazine article Communication World

What's So Great about Face-to-Face? Technology May Be a Great Facilitator, but When a Communication Has Any Emotional Charge, a Face-to-Face Meeting Is the Most Effective Choice

Article excerpt

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In this fast-paced, techno-charged era of e-mail, blogs, wikis, instant messaging and virtual meeting technologies, one universal truth remains: Face-to-face is still the most preferred, productive and powerful communication medium. In fact, the more business professionals communicate electronically, the more pressing becomes the need for personal interaction.

A recent study by the Harvard Business Review confirms that most leaders put great importance on doing business in person--and link it directly to the bottom line. The study shows that 87 percent of professionals think that face-to-face meetings are essential for sealing a business deal, while 95 percent said they are the key to successful, long-lasting business relationships.

Here's why.

In face-to-face meetings, our brains process the continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy. Face-to-face interaction is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us only partially from the words they use. We get most of the message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from vocal tone, pacing, facial expressions and body language. And we rely on immediate feedback--the instantaneous responses of others--to help us gauge how well our ideas are being accepted.

In face-to-face exchanges people watch each other's expressions to monitor reactions to what's being said and heard. Even when some words are missed, observing the expression on a speaker's face can help the listener follow a conversation.

We may have spent years learning to read and write at various levels of mastery, but no one had to teach us to send and respond to nonverbal signals. In fact, our brains need and expect these more primitive and significant channels of information. When we are denied these interpersonal cues, the brain struggles and communication suffers.

So potent is this nonverbal link between individuals that, when we are in genuine rapport with someone, we subconsciously match our body positions, movements and even our breathing rhythms with theirs. Most interesting, in face-to-face encounters, the brain's "mirror neurons" (the neural mechanism that fires when we perform an act and see another perform that same action) mimic not just behaviors but sensations and feelings as well.

It's called limbic synchrony, and we're hardwired for it. The moment we see an emotion expressed on someone's face--or read it in his or her gestures or posture--we subconsciously place ourselves in the other person's "mental shoes" and begin to sense that same emotion within ourselves. For this reason, mirror neurons are sometimes referred to as Dalai Lama neurons, because they provide a biological basis for compassion.

There are other forms of behavioral congruence in which people imitate each other without realizing it. Interactional synchronizing occurs when people move at the same time in the same way, simultaneously picking up coffee cups or starting to speak at the same time. This often occurs when we are getting along well with another person, and it can feel as though we are "on the same wavelength." In fact, synchronizing is the result of our subliminal monitoring of, and responding to, each other's nonverbal cues.

In his book On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, "Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding--to see the idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about. …

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