Digital Body Language

By Kylie Butler and Chris Williams

[4 min read]


What was the last work email you sent? Or internal Slack or Teams message? Did the sentences end with full stops or exclamation marks? Did you forget punctuation all together? Was your response prompt or did you have to apologise for the delay in your reply?

Now think about your last Zoom call, did you check your phone or email? Were there long pauses to ensure that the other person had finished or was there frequent interruptions due to delay in the connection?

So much of our communication these days is digital, whether it’s email, Messenger, text, Zoom, Teams, Slack. So much of our conversations now are not face to face, or in the same room with each other. And with that communication signals, cues and misunderstandings easily happen.

Our sense of how we are being communicated with, has shifted. For instance, did our boss intentionally send us the email at that time? Does that full stop mean the sender is upset or angry with me? How many exclamation marks is too many?

Sometimes we think we know exactly how the other person is communicating digitally, but there is often some misunderstanding, anxiety, and confusion about what people are really saying because we don’t have the context of a head nod, eye contact, the smile or frown, inflection of voice or sighs.

I’ve been reading Erica Dhawan’s ‘Digital Body Language’. I’m about 3/4 of the way through it and really loving it! Erica uses a Power Trust Matrix in her book as a guide for unpacking the dynamics of digital communication.

The first question is who has more or less power in the relationship? And the second question is how much do we trust each other?

The y-axis shows whose up or down in power levels. The x-axis shows how close or far are we in trust levels.

To unpack this a little, if you are in the up/close quadrant meaning you have more power and high trust with someone you are messaging, it may be common for you to use short, quick and brief responses in your communication. This is like to be with those who report to you.

If you are in the down/far category meaning you have less power and low trust with someone you are communicating with digitally, Erica suggests it is best to prioritise longer explanations. Focus on quick responsiveness and prioritise thoughtfulness in your wording and response times.

If you are in the up/far category meaning you have more power and low trust, Erica stresses the importance that you show people how much and why they are appreciated. Simple things like saying ‘thank you for your message, I can't look at it now, but I'll get back to you’, go a long way in helping others manage expectations.

If you are in the down/close category meaning you have less power and high trust, you may know that being responsive and clear is important, but since you're close to them, if a recipient doesn't answer your questions on Teams or Slack or email then you may be more likely to follow up quickly.

Erica suggests that every misunderstanding usually stems from a gap in awareness of power and trust levels with one another.

We’d love to hear from you, what are you learning about communication during this rapidly evolving digital season?