2 Neglected Nonverbal Skills on Video Calls


How much of your day is spent in video meetings?

Over the past two years, video calls have likely become standard fare in your daily work diet, even if you’ve returned to your office. You may have experienced a bit of a learning curve in the beginning as virtual interactions took the place of face-to-face meetings. (Where’s the mute button!?) But you’ve gotten better. Whether you’ve been purposeful about it or not, you’ve probably made adjustments in your individual, presentation, and nonverbal communication skills and figured out what works and what doesn’t in the virtual world.

As it turns out, most aspects of nonverbal communication translate to online venues, such as making eye contact, breathing, voice pattern, listening, facial expressions, and even claiming space. You can still provide stability, build trust, and communicate presence over video.

But two important aspects of nonverbal communication are almost entirely lost when you meet someone remotely: proxemics (how people interact and communicate through the use of physical space and surroundings) and haptics (touch). We are literally losing touch with each other. Studies show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the more frequent pandemics a culture experiences over time, the more introverted and less physically affectionate it becomes. Makes sense!

However, this comes at a great cost. When done appropriately, physical proximity and contact create and build connection and attachment. (As a side note, both can communicate dominance and thereby be threatening; for the purposes of this article, I am referring only to positive, mutually acceptable closeness and touch.) Simply being in the same physical space with others creates a shared experience. And it is well documented that physical touch is good for humans. Even brief touches release oxytocin into your system, which lessens fearfulness and contributes to positive, trusting relationships. Prolonged physical contact reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases serotonin and dopamine. This hormone combo actually boosts your immune system and alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety. They are especially important when navigating grief and loneliness. So, over the past two years, you have probably needed more touch than normal and have likely gotten less. Ugh.

So, what are we to do? While I’m all for returning to in-person interactions, this doesn’t work for everyone. Those who are immunocompromised may not have the luxury of doing so. And even if the covid threat were magically removed today, we’ve experienced a fundamental baseline shift in how we do business. In order to stay relevant in today’s market, you must find ways to create shared experiences and produce those positive neurochemical reactions even when remote. You have to replicate proxemics and haptics in the virtual environment. Here are some tips on how to do just that:


Proxemics — Space


Check your camera.

Be sure that your video camera is the right distance from you. If all viewers see is your face, it’s visually overwhelming, especially if you’re up on a large monitor. It’s like having a giant staring down on you. Additionally, your hands and posture aren’t visible. If you’re too far away from the camera, then you feel, well… far away!

Try to create the same experience over video as you would have in person. In a conversation at work, you would never stand so closely to another person that your face takes up their entire field of vision. (I hope.) Nor would you stand so far away that the other person has to shout. Be far enough away that your shoulders are visible and you can gesture, without being so far that you look small on camera. Here’s a rule of thumb: make sure you take up about a third of your total video image.


Claim space.

You can only have presence in the space that you claim. In a video meeting, if you want everyone on the call to feel included, you must claim a space big enough to fit them. This skill takes practice in person and is even more challenging over video. It’s easy to let your sense of space shrink down to the few inches between you and your screen. However, you can open your sense of space to go beyond your screen, your camera, your room, even your building. And by doing so on camera, you create a more inclusive experience. (For more on this skill, read this blog.)

One exception: Your audience is a collection of individuals that do not know or identify with each other—for example, you’re posting a “how to annoy your teenager” video on YouTube. When those watching are not part of a group or shared experience, shrink your space right down to create intimacy. Speak directly to each individual viewer, as if they are the only one.

Apart from that one exception, however, you can simulate the shared experience of an in-person meeting partly by claiming space for the sake of your audience.


Consider props.

Throughout the pandemic, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, has called out creative ways that virtual hosts bring people together by unifying each person’s physical space; i.e., by utilizing proxemics. Often, a physical object bridges the gap across distances. Some examples: mail items in advance to guests, such as company swag they can use on-screen; suggest everyone use the same virtual background; ask participants to bring a specific object, such as a blade of grass, or to share one from their personal environment, etc. Simply being in the same room together can create a shared experience; when the physical context is stripped from your gatherings, find creative ways to build it.


Haptics — Touch


Use your hands.

You touch primarily with your hands. In the business world, this usually means a handshake, but it could also be a pat on the back, a hug, a fist bump, or any number of other things. When people hide their hands, we take that as a sign that they have something to hide. This is why I recommend keeping your hands out of your pockets when you present or having them on the table, instead of in your lap, during negotiations. Therefore, simply allowing your hands to occasionally be seen on camera can build trust, rapport, and positive associations.

On video calls, some types of hand movements and gestures will accomplish this better than others. Gestures that signal support, encouragement, and connection are the closest substitute for touch. For example, waving, clapping, and “thumbs up” all have positive connotations. Holding your hands open suggests, “I have nothing to hide.” Gesturing to the camera and then touching your chest communicates, “You and me together.” Bringing both hands together and clasping them conveys, “All of us together.”

Avoid self-pacifying gestures and nervous habits, such as biting your nails or fiddling with hair or jewelry. Use your hands purposefully to convey warmth, empathy, and connection.


Use words.

The greatest component of your communication is nonverbal. However, when you’re unable to communicate nonverbally through haptics, use words that allude to touch. For example, when you’re celebrating a success over video, you can say, “High five!” and hold your hand up. Be lighthearted. I mean, it IS a bit dorky. But simply by simulating the high five both you and the other person on the call will get a legitimate dopamine hit. So, be dorky. (Kindly remember rule #6.)

You can also say things like, “I’m sending you hugs from afar,” or “I wish I could be there in person to give you an actual pat on the back!” Human beings love and need physical contact so much that even mentioning it can be a huge boost to a relationship. Though you may not be able to actually give a hug, acknowledging that you would if you could helps.


Does communication change over video? Yes and no. Regardless of venue, good communication comes down to sending a message in a way your audience can receive it, and being sensitive to its response. A huge component of effective communication is nonverbal—not just body language and facial expressions, but all aspects including space and touch. Depending on your message, your audience, or your venue—such as communicating via video versus phone, email, or in person—you must adjust your approach to ensure your content actually gets through. When your nonverbal and verbal messages align, you increase your credibility, build rapport, and dramatically reduce the number of times you want to pull your hair out due to communication breakdowns.


Change your communication, change your life.  

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