In my years of consulting, I have been in many meetings where people cry with frustration and sadness, where they laugh and hug with the joy of success, where they rage with the anger of failed partnerships and laugh while being surrounded by close friends.

None of those meetings were virtual. They were often held in conference rooms or offices. They were sometimes held in hotel lobbies or bars, perhaps even in elevators or airports. But never on a screen.

Since people have continued to be productive online in the last six months during the pandemic, there is a strong temptation to conclude that we don’t need in-person interactions anymore. Why pay for offices and conference rooms when online interactions are productive, efficient and convenient … and when clients seem to accept them? Also, frankly, it’s too early to hug. We can only return to in-person meetings when it becomes safe. Right now, it is not.

But when things go back to normal, we can’t forget that in-person meetings have always been fundamental to our client relationships. They allow us to show emotion, give us opportunities to build trust, to experience and express empathy, to better understand a person in full and get context for a full range of unscripted emotions that are integral to a deep relationship.

Online meetings, on the other hand, are like an air kiss—a nice gesture, but hardly the stuff of emotional connection.

Without the ability to build the deeper bonds that face-to-face meetings allow us, we won’t be as effective in helping. We’ll also be more easily replaceable—we are, in fact, in danger of irreversibly diminishing the depth of our client relationships and ultimately commoditizing our work in a flurry of computer-generated results and scripted conversations.

After all, if we can’t hug a client when they cry or celebrate, we may have willingly erased one of the very few lasting advantages independent advisory firms have—their ability to relate to the client. (Again, I stress, please do not hug until it’s safe.)

Research shows that we fail to build trust and convey emotion in online meetings. We have a harder time understanding one another. Much of the time, the information we get speaking to someone right in front of us is non-verbal. When we’re online we miss those vital things, such as seeing a person react with their entire body rather than just their faces (we don’t see the posture cues). Frankly, I find it hard to communicate without my hands to begin with. An article released by National Geographic in April documented the fatigue caused by online calls. The magazine explains that our brains are constantly searching for the missing information and cues from another person’s body language.

It is also more difficult to communicate online with multiple participants. If you are talking with a couple, for example, you want to be able to gauge the reaction of one spouse when the other speaks, and that’s harder to see in a video. You definitely need to hear the gasp or sigh or that whispered reaction from the children when Mom says something they disagree with. You can’t with virtual technology, which often trims off all the helpful visual cues. The incomplete information leads to incomplete and inaccurate conclusions.

Another reason to appreciate in-person contact is that our powers of empathy may be very closely related to our ability to mirror one another—something that becomes more difficult to do online. A 2018 Psychology Today article cited researchers who found that people who’d had Botox injections were less able to interpret emotions in others because they couldn’t fully mimic their facial expressions. We can’t really mirror others well online because we don’t see them with the same clarity. The same article also argues that hearing plays a big role in our understanding of emotions—and once again, no voice sounds fully the same online as it does in person.

Even touch is critical (though rarer). An experiment done at the University of Chicago showed that negotiators who shook hands were more open and honest with each other.

The science of our relationships is still very imprecise and nascent, but it is very clear that we rely on a lot of non-verbal, contextual and even physical cues to determine what kind of relationships we’re in.

In a brilliantly titled paper, “How To Relate To People: The Extraterrestrial’s Guide To Homo Sapiens,” scientists Alan Fiske and Lisa Schubert argue that there are four fundamental ways in which we relate to one another: through communal sharing (in our families, communities and close-knit teams); through authority ranking (by following things like org charts and army ranks); through equality matching (when we take turns or wait in line); and through market pricing (I am buying; you are selling—we will haggle). We behave very differently depending on what kind of relationships we perceive to have with other parties and observe very different rules of engaging with them.

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