Chat and videocall: the rules of digital communication to generate empathy

Replies to emails arriving a week later. Video chats full of “oops, sorry, no, go ahead” and “let me finish”. Ambiguous text messages, deleted chat replies or with incomprehensible punctuation. No wonder the digital communication it is a tower of Babel where everyone speaks a different language. Apparently, without the help of physical proximity and in front of a screen, we have lost our innate ability to understand ourselves.

267775Erica Dhawanan expert in leadership and connective intelligence (she was included in the Thinker 50 list of the most influential thinkers of today) and author of the book The digital body language (Roi editions, € 24.90), teaches us the tone, rhythm, pauses and gestures to develop empathy, trust and collaboration in the digital universe. Here are his advice.

Anxiety, fear and distrust are unwanted but constant guests of online communication. How can they be eliminated?

First of all by developing the art of listening. Reading emails carefully, identifying the needs of others, also learning to give importance to their problems by accepting them without feeling the need to solve them, incessantly looking for the best way to connect individuals and the group like a close-knit orchestra. In short, recognizing the value (and limitations) of each one to create an open team, in which everyone is listened to and where respect and trust are never lacking.

The next step is the clarity. How do I correctly reply to an email if the content is ambiguous? Am I aware of the anxiety I create in the group if I write cryptically in the company chat or the distrust I cause if I always keep the video off in a call? Priority must be given to the intelligibility of a message at the expense of brevity or even digital ghosting.

What do you mean by digital ghosting and how is it avoided?

It is a relatively new term to describe the absence of a response to an email or a question in chat or a call. This behavior can result frustraction, lack of motivation, anger or disappointment. There are rules to avoid this. If you are waiting for an answer and it is not urgent, do not urge and do not start ruminating about what happened. After a few days, try again. If you only get silence again, change the means of communication (from email to sms or chat or if you are under date, call). We are all busy and there is nothing personal. If you have to answer, do it now if it doesn’t take more than 60 seconds or if it’s urgent. If not, reply that you are working on the answer and provide the time or day you will do so.

Communicating authentically is essential. How do you read between the lines on a screen?

In presence in the offline world, you could understand the progress of a meeting from the side conversations in the breaks, from the eye contact, from the smiles, from the winks, from the handshakes at the end of the session. Today, in the virtual world, body language translates into words, punctuation, tenses and choice of medium and it is often easy to misunderstand. Hierarchies are shown in emails through the To, Cc and Bcc lines and the order in which your name appears. A clearly written email with a period at the end of the last sentence can be intimidating from miles away. Enthusiasm and approval are conveyed through exclamation marks, emojis, and quick responses.

Can you tell us how to use them correctly?

Emojis are nothing more than small faces designed to mimic the emotional range of human ones. In the real world, we complement our expressions with hand and arm gestures and tone of voice. Online, emojis replicate our facial expressions by providing texture and context to our digital communications. They are not, and should not be, just the prerogative of teenagers. That said, they go used with cautionand in a different way depending on your culture and your country of origin.

It’s important also use the ellipsis in moderation: since they signal an unfinished thought, they often create confusion or hesitation and introduce a doubt that can create misunderstandings. Finally, capital letters must be calibrated: a word in capital letters is received as if you were screaming, so always read carefully the messages you write.

In short, it is a jungle of signs. How do you orient yourself without making a mistake?

Through active listening: in a digital conversation it means responding quickly to a request, showing attention and empathy through precise questions, arrange a face-to-face meeting regarding the more complex issues. In a video call it is helpful to take notes or make sure they are sent after the session, not to interrupt someone and use verbal cues such as “Go ahead” or “I’m listening to you” to encourage others to share their thoughts. It is also very important not to use the “mute” button or deactivate the video function because it shows disinterest. Finally, no multitasking: there is nothing more irritating than talking in front of a video and seeing participants bent over and chatting on their mobile phones.

Can you tell who is on the other side of the screen by looking at their digital language?

Of course. Introverts, for example, are recognizable because they have longer response times, a formal style, use bulleted lists, and impeccable punctuation. Extroverts, on the other hand, abound in emojis, GIFs, and memes. They use exclamation marks and prefer face-to-face meetings.

Two styles of digital communication

HE: In general (but a lot also depends on the character) it uses synthetic messages and clear and make sure they go straight to the point. Use adverbs such as “always”, “definitely”, “obviously” to make the communication more assertive and authoritative. He tends to avoid emojis.

SHE: He more often prefers face-to-face meetings to digital media. She tends to use kindness and courtesy as tools along with cover language like “maybe”, “might”, “think maybe”. He uses non-standard spelling and punctuation to express emotions, such as “reallyoo ???” “I don’t believe it.”



When to use it. It is ideal for sending precise and detailed information and useful for sharing important decisions or initiatives that need to be left behind. It is the best solution for sending documents and attachments.

How to use it. Always focus on the person you are writing to. Use clear and polite language, which does not give rise to ambiguity or double meanings. Don’t be stingy in details: objectives to be achieved and tasks to be performed must be carefully explained. Reread the email several times to avoid grammatical errors.

Video call

When to use it. It is useful for meetings so that you can benefit from the visual and auditory information, but to avoid the loss of attention of the participants, do not exceed the weekly frequency. Respect the established times.

How to use it. Appoint a moderator to set meeting goals and timing. The ideal would be to limit the number of participants to 8 people and the duration should not exceed 60 minutes. Make it clear immediately if video functionality is required for participation and notify if the session will be recorded.


When to use it. It remains the most direct and immediate means of communicating and is irreplaceable in case of ambiguity. Better a quick and polite phone call than an endless series of questions and answers via email or company chat.

How to use it. Always precede the call with a whatsapp or text message, especially if you work in smartworking. Just a “can I call you?” to start off on the right foot. Use a direct but gentle tone – we all know how to use our voice to create connection and empathy.

Chat / SMS

When to use them. Instant messaging has immediate reception, so it should be used in moderation, only for short messages. Text messages are more formal but just as direct: perfect for fast communication, they are intrusive if too frequent.

How to use them. If you use the chat for work, check the hours (best avoided if it’s late) and moderate the amount of text and voice messages and emojis. Read before sending – how would you feel if that message was resubmitted or copied? The same goes for texting: write succinctly and clearly, and put question marks if you are waiting for an answer.