6 ways to best express empathy in Zoom meetings

Experts weigh in: As businesses continue to operate remotely, it's increasingly difficult to virtually convey a supportive reaction and to express understanding.

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Decisions for organizations to return to the offices are plagued with fears of the COVID-19's second wave and potentially nonenforceable safety measures. Both schools and businesses have opened and closed within days because of reported outbreaks and necessary quarantines. Teachers are protesting edicts to return to the classroom.

Companies across the country may grapple with continuing the new normal indefinitely, but remote work is here to stay, even if it means longer hours for employees. The potential for safety and closing the wage gap make telecommuting more appealing than the uncertainty of a return to an actual office. 

And with remote work invariably comes a series of virtual meetings, from video weekly one-on-ones, daily team conference calls, among many other modes of communication.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

While being empathetic is, or should be, a staple expression for team leaders, it's important for any employee participating in video meetings to have a grasp of the inherent emotional cues: What is quite evident in person may be far less so over the internet.

Expert opinions

Experts weighed in on how to express empathy during video meetings (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, and Skype).

  1. Practice active listening, advised Praniti Lakhwara, chief information officer, at the document-tools organization Conga. "Paraphrasing what others have said and then responding with your perspective on the discussed topic is an effective way to inform peers you've heard what they have said, and have validated their perspective by offering your opinion on the subject."
  2. Human connectivity, offered Mimi Nicklin, author of "Softening the Edge" and host of the online web series, "Empathy for Breakfast." "Listen up, lean in and maintain eye contact. These are all signs of empathetic listening—arguably our most powerful human skill."
  3. Be present throughout the meeting. Nicklin added, "Keep your eyes on [the screen], your shoulders square, and lean in physically, and you'll activate subconscious signs of connectivity and empathy, even when separated by technology.  [Never] work on another device! On Zoom, it is even more overt that you are focusing on another screen as people have a direct line of sight to the direction of your gaze. Given the lack of context this can be seen as far more disrespectful and demotivating than it perhaps would if you were in a physical meeting."
  4. Get the big picture, if a colleague expresses a struggle, said Julie A. Chesley, an associate professor of organization theory and management at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. "What is the context, what is the frame of mind of this other person, what's going on in their world? Then, instead of trying to solve the issue for them, fix things or try and make them feel better, validate what's going on. Reflect their feelings descriptively—'Wow that's so discouraging.' If you can relate, let them know 'I'd be frustrated too.'" Chesley's Pepperdine colleague, Terri Egan, associate professor of applied behavioral science, said: "Try and stay out of judgment—and that's hard to do.  It's so easy to be on autopilot and judge another person's thoughts or actions, or what they should be feeling or doing.  Unfortunately, that doesn't foster connection or understanding."
  5. Tackle the Zoom/video meeting challenges, said Dr. Pavan Madan, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry in Davis, CA. "Expressing empathy on Zoom can be difficult. Pay attention to your body language. Your eyes and head are doing most of the nonverbal communication. Limit hand gestures since they tend to get exaggerated on video, especially if you are sitting too close to the camera. [Consider] the tech you're using; it can impact how you're expressing yourself. Use a good quality camera so you can be seen clearly, and better gauge nonverbal communication.
  6. Avoid distractions, Madan said. "Have a clutter-free background so the other person doesn't get distracted to the point of misinterpreting your reactions. Don't have other browser windows open during important conversations. Consider using wireless earbuds so you can listen easily and talk comfortably and calmly, in a low-tone of voice. Consider whisper-quiet mice and keyboards for distraction-free typing and clicking during conversations."

SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)

Follow up and context

"Remember that the other person has to overcome the same technical struggles with showing empathy via Zoom as you do, so don't take it personally," said Madan. "Perhaps, consider following up on the Zoom call with an email, text or phone call later expressing and reiterating how you felt."

Egan said: "We feel less empathetic when we are anxious—we lose some of our ability to perspective-take, a critical part of empathy. So, as a leader, before your Zoom call, take the time to check in with yourself and when you are feeling stressed take time to reset."

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