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Non-Verbal Communication in Community Management

#Midjourney, “the diverse dance of non-verbal communication online

Up to 80% of our communication is not spoken (or written). Many other characteristics of our language combine to determine the way our words are received. Most of us have very little training or practice with this relationship alchemy, and we are often not even directly aware when it is happening. We are continuously signaling to each other how and when to respond according to the value and hope we place on each connection in our life.

Non-verbal communication (NVC) creates the majority of impact in our patterns of relationship — growing together or apart — and yet, how many of us spend any time really considering the signals we are sending to everyone around us? As community managers, our awareness of NVC can harmonize or disrupt the communities we are charged with at every decision point and action we take. 

For online communities, where most communication is not through face-to-face interactions, we don’t have the head to toe non-verbal cues to span the communication gap. This can lead us to unconsciously hyper-focus on the tiny nuances of what we read, assumptions about tone or intent, and wrong impressions regarding the sustainability of our relationships.

If you’d like to learn more, here’s a fascinating study on non-verbal communication in online education.

The next time you are connecting with your community, consider the following non-verbal elements of written communication:

  • Timing: How soon after someone writes do you respond? Imagine that writing to another individual depletes a finite reserve of vulnerability because of the risk we take in being misunderstood. As soon as you put something out there, instead of seeing the immediate ripple through their body language, you have to wait sometimes for hours or days before I hearing back from them. Maybe you are writing without knowing who or if anyone will respond. If you do finally get that response, you may have built up or remained in a state of tension due to all of the waiting and hoping someone would understand your needs based on what you wrote.
  • Punctuation: How often do you use exclamation marks, commas, periods, and question marks? What emotions do these symbols convey?
  • Grammar: Do I spell your name correctly? Do I capitalize other people’s names and not yours? Do I spell your name out, or do I just say “you” because I am avoiding some discomfort when writing your name?
  • Figurative Language can mean using sounds constructed into non-words to convey emotions. For example, saying “umm” can indicate I am hesitating, thinking, or feeling awkward and censoring something else I don’t feel comfortable saying. 
  • Emojis: We’ve all seen how emojis can be wielded to cause harm, confusion, and even fear. A well-placed emoji can also validate more subtle emotions that may be embedded in written text. Look at how different the tone of “Um, sure I will help you” can change by adding one of these emojis onto the end of it. 😉🥳🫡
  • The order of responding: Sometimes we might respond to community members according to the lowest lifts and least complex needs, then deal with the more charged or challenging situations last. We might not realize how this could impact those expressing these needs, or we may be unaware of how that prioritization could recreate the bias and discrimination which might have created those more complex situations to begin with . Putting someone who has expressed a vulnerability or need last can also communicate that we are uncomfortable or have concerns about what they said. This can build tension even further in an already brittle situation. One way to address my discomfort as a CM is sometimes to send an emoji first to acknowledge that I have seen their query or need, and then follow-up later when I’ve taken some time to reflect on what I can do to help them. This is one of my favorite emoji approaches to convey message received: 🤔. Sometimes I will add a heart 💞or hug 🤗 if I think that they have taken an especially vulnerable risk in sharing.

Try this exercise the next time you are writing to someone who has requested some type of support or shared something about themselves: imagine they are your favorite person in the world and have just been very vulnerable, asking you for help. See yourself turning to them, maybe even embracing them after saying how honored you are to be of assistance.

Now, imagine that the same person is your worst enemy, though you still must respond, no matter how much you may not want to.

Notice how differently you would respond using the above non-verbal list in these two scenarios. Depending on how you feel in the moment, your response time, use of punctuation and grammar, and deployment of emoji or less formal language will tell that person a lot about how you support them in their needs and humanity.

In online community, sometimes we only get one chance to tell someone they matter before they may move on, turn silent in the community, or share their negative experience. They may have spent the remainder of their vulnerability reserve on you or your community. How do you respect this act of faith, even if it may appear scrambled or misinformed, and respond with the grace that your favorite people have given you when you needed their support?

Next week, we’ll look at Asynchronous Responding to uncomfortable moments, and how this can be a powerful tool when practicing conflict resiliency.

#NVC #CommunityManagement #Conflict Resiliency #Online Communities

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