With the evolution of ‘tele’ communication (‘tele’ derived from the Greek for distant or far), technological innovations from the telegraph to video telephony etc. have increased human connectivity but not without cost. Whilst the quantity and reach of communication has increased the quality of communication has declined accordingly.
For mediation, the importance of face to face meetings is paramount. With such interactions there is the possibility of rapport, empathy, connection and understanding all reinforced by nonverbal cues. For many, listening seems to have become the forgotten part of communication with ‘listening’ replaced with ‘waiting to speak’.
If we are trust business leaders on this subject, they are clear; according to a Forbes Insights survey, eight out of 10 expressed a preference for face-to-face communication. Face-to-face meetings “build stronger, more meaningful business relationships,” they said. It is also easier to read body language, expressions and interpret nonverbal communication. They agreed, “Face-to-face communication is best for persuasion, leadership, engagement, inspiration, decision-making, accountability, candour, focus and reaching a consensus”.
A mediator is there to assist in ‘translation’ and to ensure that parties get to hear what each is saying. Distanced parties become subject to their own confirmation biases (the tendency to interpret and favour information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities). As the effect is stronger for emotional issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs, this can have a particularly destructive effect on families. The danger for those who cannot communicate face to face is further polarisation, the erosion of trust and increasingly problematic communication. Where there are children involved, this can have a catastrophic effect on the ability of parents to work cooperatively for the benefit of the child, not to mention the increased cost of protracted litigation fuelled by miscommunication and broken trust.
If communication, which is difficult enough between former partners A and B, is delegated to adversarial legal representatives C and D, the likely fate of such exchanges is akin to an increasingly wobbly pot on the potter’s wheel. Whilst there are competing theories about exactly what percentage of communication is non-verbal, it is clear that humans are evolutionally programmed to place a great deal of importance on the non-verbal over the verbal. One of the more significant determinants of trust is bound up in whether what is being said matches the conscious and unconscious behaviours exhibited by the other party to that communicative event. Without the ability to establish authenticity by direct communication, there is a risk of misunderstanding, miscommunication and the fate of the potter’s wheel.
For so long as we place equal value on communication over a distance to face to face interactions we choose to ignore the differences between the various modes of communication. Written interactions allow us to present ourselves differently than we might ordinarily. We can edit until we are satisfied that what is written fits the image we wish to project, something which is not quite so simple in a real time environment. Equally, as the visual, auditory and other clues are removed, the more likely we are to base our response on assumption rather than actual feedback. ‘I’m coming to get you’, written in a text message could be read as, ‘I’m coming to pick you up’, or ‘I am on my way to slaughter you’. Much of communication takes place non-verbally and emotions can easily be transferred from person to person without the utterance of a single word.
In this world of the Internet, e-mail, instant messaging, mobile phones and devices, we should keep in mind the importance of face-to-face communication. While we maximise the abilities and benefits of these new communication technologies, we need to remember to engage in physical interaction for the subtle and important benefits which it provides.