‘Can miles truly separate you from friends? If you want to be with someone you love, aren’t you already there?’ (Richard Bach)
Social distance. It’s not just physical. It’s a feeling. I meet someone close to me, albeit with a 2-metre space in between, and my instinct is to hug, to shake hands, to embrace. There’s a brief, awkward dance as we hesitate, come to a halt, hold the rule. It’s an invisible gulf that separates us, interrupts our contact, keeps us apart. After a moment, we adjust ourselves and the conversation begins to flow. Gradually...a new and different normal emerges. We find a way to bridge the gap. A smile, a gesture, an animated movement, a tone of voice. We start to feel closer again. A metaphorical touch.
Perhaps it’s the same on-screen. We meet a person, a client, a colleague online and, at first, the technology forms a barrier, a boundary and a bridge between us. It feels different to being in the same physical room at the same time and we may feel that similar sense of distance, of strangeness, of desire to connect. Yet, somehow, we do it. Our intrinsic human powers of empathy, imagination and communication create their own paths of relational contact. We tune into voice, expressions, movement and surroundings. Over time, we feel each others’ presence intuitively, and the gap feels smaller.
How have you handled social distance with people at work?
‘I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.’ ‘I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I said.’ (Alan Greenspan)
You may have had that experience of communicating something you thought was perfectly clear, only to discover that the other person got the completely wrong end of the proverbial stick. How is that possible? Was it something in what you said or, perhaps, how you said it that influenced how the message was received, distorted or misunderstood? Whatever the cause, when it does happen, you can both feel bemused, confused or frustrated – and the consequences can be difficult, damaging or dangerous.
I want to suggest this occurs mainly as a result of mismatched beliefs, values, assumptions and emotions in four critical areas: language, culture, context and relationship. There are, of course, situations in which a person may wilfully misinterpret what you said or simply choose to ignore you. However, I’m thinking more here about when it happens inadvertently and out of awareness. It’s something about what influences (a) what we infer and (b) how we interpret, when we communicate – so that we can improve it.
The language question means the same words can mean different things to different people, even in the same language group. The culture question means the assumptions I make appear obvious or self-evident in the groups or teams I belong to. The context question means I interpret what you say based on my own perspective and understanding of the situation. The relationship question means I filter what you say based on what I perceive and feel about the nature, dynamics and quality of our relationship.
So – this where a spirit of inquiry can help: Check what the other has heard and understood. Notice the language they use. Be curious about their cultural and contextual perspectives. Sense how they are feeling. Build trust.
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