Telephone Empathy

You have taken 157 Zoom calls since the Corona Virus lockdown started and you are beginning to dread the next ‘interactive online gathering’. Sounds familiar? Yesterday I crawled through four hours of consecutive Zoom calls. Afterwards I felt like I had been run over by a bus. 

I couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what I found most frustrating about the platform. There are the obvious issues: the fact that I have to stare at my own nose throughout the call and I find myself wondering whether the platform might have an application to make it look just a little smaller. Then there is there is the colleague who looks like they are in a Scandinavian home-furnishing showroom, filled with immaculate cream rugs and scented candles. Frankly I would rather not be reminded of how badly we are faring in lockdown domesticity: I prefer to assume everyone else’s house also looks like a small tornado has passed through it.

Yet, it’s not really the comparisons or the vanity that are getting me down. It is something far more subtle. The fact is that something about the medium of interactive screen calls interrupts the flow of empathy between us: People who are usually sensitive and intuitive suddenly seem abrasive and blunt. All of the subtleties of tone and pitch seem to have been edited out of our communications.

I read a fascinating study published by Yale psychologist Michael W. Kraus entitled, “Voice-Only Communication Enhanced Empathetic Accuracy.” (I know. It sounds amazing!) His comprehensive study shows us that when we have less information we tend to do better in accurately determining what a person is really feeling. Kraus concludes, “Overall, the findings align with a broader literature which finds that vocal cues are more critical to accurate emotion recognition than are facial cues of emotion.”(American Psychologist 2017, Vol. 72, No. 7, 644 – 654) It was a relief to find some science to back up my discomfort. I thought I might have just been me.

We tend to use our eyes as our sensory default and largely overestimate the importance of what we see in determining emotions. So, given the option for more vision, we typically take it. Who would opt for black and white when you could have glorious HD? However, seeing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and unconsciously I think we know that. Take hugging for example (since we are all missing it!). When someone gives you a big hug, you tend to close your eyes as the sensory experience is more powerful without the distraction of sight. It’s not just touch either; try watching someone smelling a rose or a good glass of red wine. 

If we want to really connect deeply it appears that having less information at our disposal is actually helpful. Kraus again states, “These findings suggest paradoxically that understanding others’ mental states and emotions relies less on the amount of information provided, and more on the extent that people attend to the information being vocalized in interactions with others.” I suddenly realise why staring at 23 different people’s faces in quick succession (including my own) is leaving me so exhausted: It’s information overload and rather than going deep, I’m getting overwhelmed. 

So I did an emotional experiment of my own. I did a marriage counselling session while lying on my back on a really comfy sofa. No guilt whatsoever. I closed my eyes and listened deeply. It was a heavy conversation but it was good. Most remarkable to me was the fact that once the hour long call was over, I felt energised not exhausted. Voices really do communicate empathy and connection better than visuals and voices together. This is strengthened by that fact that if your body is relaxed and you are neither distracted nor self-conscious, you will be able to listen more effectively and foster a deeper and more supportive connection with the person you are listening to.

So what to do? I am not saying that we should forgo video calls – really, I’m not. They are a valuable and necessary means to us continuing to work and connect together during this difficult time. The key question we need to ask is; What is the purpose of this call? If it is for the transmission of factual information between large groups of people you are in the right place. If however, you want a deeper, more meaningful and relational conversation pick up the phone and make an audio only call.

If you have to use film based communication there are a few steps you can take to improve the emotional quality of the call: 

Filmed Platforms

  1. Get yourself set up before the call goes live. (Think about your comfort, angle, background etc)
  2. Do not click ‘Multi Screen’ or ‘Gallery Mode’- instead stay on the ‘Single Screen Mode’ so you should see only one person’s face at a time
  3. Do not enable ‘Selfie View’- try to avoid having your own image on the screen at all
  4. Use a group mute approach – encouraging everyone to mute their microphone unless they are speaking. This limits your focus onto one voice only
  5. Use headphones and then reduce the volume (this improves the audio quality and counteracts the speakers tendency to shout/overenunciate)
  6. Use a doodle pad while you listen. (This is extremely useful if you are a kinesthetic learner. It also helpfully means you look like you are making notes and therefore not needing to constantly stare at the screen)
  7. Take a break between sessions. Have a walk, or stretch in the fresh air. Re-set before you begin on another call.

Audio only Calls

  1. Do whatever you like. Nobody is watching.
Will Van Der Hart, 09/04/2020
More Articles
comments powered by Disqus