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Carol Kinsey GomanThe message is simple: Work from home, don’t meet in person – or if you must get together, keep your social distance!

But as we increase our efforts to fend off the spread of COVID-19, we need to watch that we aren’t worsening another threat to public health: loneliness.

The ‘loneliness epidemic’ has seen rates double in the United States over the last 50 years.

Insurance provider Cigna’s recent survey of more than 20,000 American adults found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out and isolated. Further, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people.

Loneliness can also make you sick – more prone to catching cold, developing heart disease and experiencing depression. A recent report from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration stated that social isolation can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

And contrary to what you might think, it’s not only the elderly who feel isolated. Younger, more technologically-connected generations also suffer. Cigna’s survey found that 79 percent of generation Z members, 71 percent of millennials and 50 percent of baby boomers are lonely.

We are social animals with a need for belonging that’s powerful and primitive. The roots of connection go back to our prehistory as a matter of survival.

Belonging is not only a motivating component of workplace collaboration, it’s the brain’s key driver. Our brains have evolved to be social – constantly assessing what others may think or feel, how they’re responding to us, if we feel safe with them and if they feel safe with us.

Because of that primal need for connection, our brains react negatively when we feel isolated or excluded. Neuroscientists at UCLA found that when people feel excluded, there’s corresponding activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex – the neural region involved in the suffering component of pain. The feeling of being excluded – left out, overlooked, ignored – provokes the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.

While people shelter in place, don’t let physical distancing make loneliness worse. Here are three tips to reduce isolation and increase connection:

Make your communication as rich as possible.

Communication mediums run a spectrum from lean to rich.

A lean medium transmits less information than a rich medium. There are obvious advantages of lean, text-based communication tools. They are fast, inexpensive, and most employees have access to them and are comfortable using them. They can reach large audiences quickly, and they also create a written record of events, which can be valuable for tracking progress and for keeping everyone up to date.

Just remember, if you’re emailing, texting or typing in a chat window (all lean mediums), nothing gives added clues to the meaning of what you write.

When the message is straightforward and easy to understand, a lean channel is fine. But because they lack social signals, lean mediums are poor transmitters of emotion, intent or humour.

Communication gets richer when you add voice and/or image. Telephone calls and teleconferences give listeners access to vocal clues. Videoconferencing allows participants to view facial expressions and hand gestures.

One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that speakers, as compared to email senders, were almost 40 percent better at communicating enthusiasm, skepticism, empathy, sympathy, irony, doubt, belief, encouragement, caution and humour.

When your goal is to make people feel included and connected, it helps to add the human elements that richer mediums like telephoning or videoconferencing offer.

Watch your body language.

On a phone call, it’s all about vocal prosody (how you say what you say). The quality of your voice can be a deciding factor in how you’re perceived.

Speakers with higher-pitched voices are judged to be less empathetic, less powerful and more nervous than speakers with lower pitched voices. One easy technique to do before a teleconference is to put your lips together and say “Um hum, um hum, um hum.” Doing so relaxes your voice into its warmer and lower pitch.

Participants in videoconferences tend to be more influenced by heuristic cues – such as how likable they perceive the speaker to be – rather than the quality of the arguments presented by the speaker. This is due to the higher cognitive demands that videoconferencing places on people.

So when you’re the presenter at a videoconference, you will want to emphasize non-verbal signals of likability and warmth – leaning forward slightly, smiling, showing palms, etc.

A few other tips to keep in mind:

  • You’ll be more effective if you speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Pause between thoughts to let participants process what you said.
  • Remember that distracting mannerisms and facial expressions can all be picked up and exaggerated on camera.
  • Keep a less-is-more attitude. Don’t fidget by rubbing hands together, bouncing your feet, drumming fingers on your desk or playing with your jewelry. You’ll make viewers feel nervous just watching you. Keep your hand gestures small, fluid and close to your body.
  • Maintain positive eye contact by looking at the screen when others are speaking and at the camera when you’re speaking. It’s a good idea to lower the monitor camera a little so you don’t have to tilt your head back to gaze up at it.

Don’t let today’s necessary reliance on technology become a permanent replacement for face-to-face interaction.

In 1984, John Naisbitt wrote the bestseller Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, in which he popularized the concept of “high-tech, high-touch.” The basic premise was that as humans became more capable of anonymous electronic communication, they would concurrently need more personal interaction.

Naisbitt was right on target – perhaps more literally than he knew – as the loss of physical touch deprives us of the most primitive and essential form of non-verbal communication. That’s why I mourn the fact that the “high-touch” greetings of a kiss, hug or, in business settings, a handshake, are being replaced by a head nod, a wave or a namaste (prayer hands, slight bow) hand gesture.

Any communication strategy takes skill. A well-crafted email can be more effective than a poorly handled in-person meeting.

But for the highest level of engagement and connection, for building and deepening relationships, face-to-face is undeniably the richest and most effective communication medium. It remains the most powerful human interaction.

Technology may be getting us closer to replicating the experience, but there’s nothing yet that can fully replace the intimacy and immediacy of getting people together, face-to-face.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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