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The Value of Face-to-Face Communication

Lavon Winkler, Former CEO, FLEXcon, N.A.

Smartphones, social media and email can make people believe that in-person interactions are passé. Let’s face it, electronic communications are expedient and far-reaching, and in a world that seems to only be picking up speed, the path of least resistance is often to shoot off an email or text message in the hope of making something happen quickly, or at least get something going while we’re working on something else. However, while these methods are great for disseminating factual information, like schedule availability or technical details, they seldom produce the desired results for more complex activities, such as negotiations or problem-solving, that may be critical to the success of your business. In those situations, face-to-face interaction may be the difference between success and failure.

This brings to mind a time when I was the sales manager for a Fortune 500 Company, and one of my sales reps informed me that we had just lost a $2.3 million project we had been working on for months. When I stated that we hadn’t lost it yet, he insisted that it had been awarded to one of our competitors. Now customarily, the rep would have followed up with an email thanking the buyer for the opportunity to be considered. Instead, I had him call the buyer and ask if we could stop by his office. We went to the buyer’s office that afternoon, and I congratulated him on his decision and thanked him for the opportunity to be considered. Late that same day, my sales rep received a call from the buyer saying that he had changed his mind and was awarding the project to our company. Our taking the 45 minutes to drive to his office and have that in-person conversation rather than shooting off an email, which would have been so easy, saved a large project.

Face-to-face interaction may be the difference between success and failure.

– Lavon Winkler, Former CEO of FLEXcon North America

Colleagues conversing in a meeting

While on the one hand, electronic communications enable us to connect with whomever we want, whenever we want without leaving our desks, we lose the aspects of human communication that aren’t captured in the words alone – tone, facial expressions, mannerisms, posture. When you think about it, in fact, digital communications really aren’t two-way communications at all. Rather, they’re a series of separate one-way communications where information is passed back and forth. Think about it. You send someone an e-mail or reach out over LinkedIn. At some point, the recipient reads it (hopefully). He or she may respond immediately, may wait and respond later, or may ignore the message altogether. It’s interaction, yes, but is it truly a conversation?

Furthermore, you don’t get the benefit of seeing the person’s reaction to your message. It’s simply an exchange of words. That’s much different from engaging in a conversation with someone who’s in the room with you, where you can see their immediate reactions to what you say, read their body language, and gauge their level of interest or acceptance.

Not Another Meeting!

Of course, in a world where we’re already overscheduled, the thought of holding yet another meeting can be overwhelming. The reality, however, is that having an in-person conversation with an individual or group is quite often the quickest way to achieve a desired result.

  • Knock it out. An exchange of emails on a seemingly simple topic can get very long and drawn out, especially if there are multiple people on the thread. Some individuals may not “reply-all,” leaving others with only limited insight. Alternatively, your inbox can get clogged up quickly with multiple individuals replying to everyone on every message. These issues can be avoided by simply getting everyone into a room and having a brief conversation to get everything on the table, discuss, and make a decision or plan. End of story.
  • Avoid Misunderstandings. Since it’s not possible to assess tone from a written message, what you think sounds reasonable can easily be misinterpreted by the recipient. Quite often, the recipient will project their mood into your words, so if everything is roses and butterflies on a sunny morning, they may interpret your message is helpful; whereas, if they’re irritated at the end of a long day, they may interpret your message as critical. If it’s the latter, then this could get your exchange off to a bad start, especially if the topic is delicate or controversial.
  • Repair Relationships. If you find yourself in a strained relationship, meeting face-to-face may be the only way to save it. While it may be tempting to start a tough conversation from behind a computer screen where you feel protected, you risk damaging the relationship with the recipient, possibly to the point of being unreconcilable because they will likely assume something negative is being implied. This can cause things to quickly escalate in an undesirable direction. After all, we’ve seen social media bring out the nasty in people, and this can happen in the office, too, where individuals lob grenades over email, thinking it will bring someone in line when all it really does is further damage the relationship. If your goal is to repair a relationship, do it in person.
Colleagues talking face to face

  • Engage in Better Collaboration. Because an in-person conversation allows ideas to build, a meeting can generate more collaborative solutions to problems and challenges. There’s a reason why they call it a “meeting of the minds.” Everyone gets on the same page quickly, allowing for more productive brainstorming where ideas feed off each other to generate a better solution more quickly.
  • Avoid Inadequate Responses. Not everyone is great with the written word. Either their comprehension isn’t very good, they’re in too much of a rush to fully digest the information, or their writing skills are lacking. Think about all the times you’ve sent an email with, say, three questions in it, and received a response with the answer to only one. Sometimes folks just don’t read. By taking a few moments to meet, you can get the answers you need and move on with your project.
  • Get to “Yes” Faster. It’s very easy to say “no” via email or over the phone – not so much in person. If you really need a “yes” from someone, take the time to meet. Frame your proposal, provide the necessary information to back it up, ask for what you want, and then wait. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll likely leave the room satisfied.

Naturally, there will be occasions when a face-to-face meeting simply isn’t an option. In those instances, video conferencing can be a close second, and there’s always the telephone which at least allows tone of voice to be discerned. The important thing to remember is that in-person conversations give us the opportunity to discover shared experiences and make personal connections. These healthy exchanges, in turn, build trust that will benefit our interactions moving forward. So, think of them as investments in project outcomes. You will surely enjoy a positive return.

For more on relationships and other topics, peruse our Insights section.

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