Posted: 11 Jan. 2022 10 min. read

How connecting virtually can help nudge our relationships closer

On a recent Tuesday my colleague Sarah Snow kicked off our weekly Business Chemistry team meeting in her usual way. She asked us to pick a number between one and 50 (I chose 18). Then she read out the corresponding question from a list she’s compiled to help us get past the temptation to start with the mundane “How is everyone?” question. Sarah’s questions over the past year or so have ranged from “What is the closest thing to real magic?” to “What would you name your boat if you had one?” In case you’re curious, I’d name my boat No Thank You. I’m not a fan of boats.

This particular Tuesday, the question Sarah posed was, “What are you struggling with right now?” Collectively, we paused, cracked a joke or two, and then decided it was too early in the morning to delve into our struggles in a group forum. Our team is quite close, in part due to Sarah’s questions, but it just felt like too much that day. And herein lies one of the challenges of getting to know personally those we have professional relationships with. We’re not all equally comfortable getting equally real at all times or in all settings. That day, Sarah simply chose another question, and instead we discussed what we most like about winter. Cozy nights on the sofa seemed to be the consensus.

So how do you find the right balance between getting real with each other, but not making people uncomfortable? Where is the line between getting curious about someone and overstepping into intrusiveness? Most importantly, it’s important to consider the difference between nudging people to be a bit vulnerable, which might be just what they need to get there, and pushing, which is likely a step too far. Pay close attention to how people react when a question is posed or a discussion topic broached, and be ready to pivot if it doesn’t feel right. That’s what Sarah did, and it worked out just fine.

Finding that middle ground between interest and prying may be even more important when you’ve got introverts in the mix. I’ve shared before that the more introverted Business Chemistry typesGuardians, Dreamers, and Scientists—may feel less safe being their true selves at work than the more extroverted Pioneers, Commanders, and Teamers. And being reserved around people they don’t know well is one of the defining differences between the introverted and extroverted types. So getting a sense sooner than later about someone’s business chemistry type may help you gauge how quickly you can go deep. Not that introverts don’t want to go deep—they value strong personal relationships at work as much as extroverts do—it just might take them a bit longer to get comfortable. And introverts don’t necessarily find it desirable to maintain as many relationships at work. So if you want to be on their priority list, it may be extra beneficial to pay attention to their preferences.

I recently attended a dinner party during which I was seated near a very curious young woman who asked questions that went quite a bit beyond the usual chitchat. Throughout the evening she asked me how one finds the right person to collaborate with on a book project and what that collaboration looks like. She asked how growing up in the Midwest has affected me and whether there are particular hobbies that I share with my kids. She asked why I’m a vegetarian and what the story is behind my daughter’s frog’s name. I thought she was a great conversationalist, and it was fun and easy to talk with someone who was doing all the work of finding new topics and guiding the conversation. And yet, as an introvert (Guardian-Dreamer!), in a loud environment, surrounded by people I didn’t know very well, my energy for the conversation flagged after some time. For me, a shorter interaction might have been a bit better.

Reflecting on that party and my curious dinner companion leads me to think a bit more about how our efforts to build relationships at work may be helped rather than hurt by today’s virtual-first and hybrid working models. I wrote a few months ago about how these ways of working sometimes contribute to showing us, literally, what’s important in people’s lives. But they also might help us get acquainted at a pace that’s more palatable for some of us.

Let’s say you want to get to know someone better. Prior to 2020 you might have thought the obvious thing to do would be to get together for coffee, a drink, or a meal out at a restaurant. And that might still work, if you are geographically near each other, and if you can both find the time, and if you are both comfortable eating or drinking in public places. So you might plan to get together and come to the meetup with lots of creative questions, hoping to really bond with the person. And that might happen. Or it might not. No matter how well prepared you are with engaging questions, the other person may only let you in so far. And if you keep firing questions at them, they may find it a bit overwhelming, like they’re being interrogated.

But with so many virtual options for connecting with people, you don’t have to depend on doing the “get-to-know-each-other-all-at-once” thing. Consider instead a phased approach. Maybe start with setting up a quick “get-to-know-you” Zoom coffee chat. Come prepared with just a few questions, both professional and mildly personal, and plan to keep it short. If you’re not sure how to get into the questions you could say something like, “There’s a question I always like to ask people when I’m getting to know them, do you mind if I ask you?” Then a day or two later send a quick follow-up email with a reference that calls back something you discussed in your coffee chat, followed by another question. For example, “I came across this article about the funniest llama haircuts the day after you told me you always wanted a llama farm! Which would you choose for your llamas?” Then, sometime later maybe comment on something they’ve posted on LinkedIn and ask them a question about it. Something like, “Thanks for sharing that article—I found it really interesting. Do you think the workplace will ever go back to normal? Or do you think it even should?” (After all, if this is a professional relationship you probably don’t want to limit your discussions to llamas.) The other person may or may not respond to your online comment and question, but either way you’ve demonstrated your interest and curiosity.

In this way, you start to get to know each other better, but over time. By showing your curiosity in a way that doesn’t overwhelm, the person will likely begin to trust you and gradually be willing to reveal more. It’s a little like roasting a marshmallow. You can do so over a roaring campfire, but you risk charring your marshmallow to ash. You’ll get a more even toastiness over hot coals, but it will take a bit more patience. If you do have the opportunity to meet someone in person after several virtual interactions (if all of the above ifs are met), there’s some evidence that the meeting will be more comfortable, especially for an introvert, because of having interacted with you virtually first.

Or maybe you’re the introvert? Maybe you feel like you’re not great at the in-person get-to-know-you chats. This is true for me. Introverts tend to process things more deeply and slowly than extroverts, especially if there’s a lot of environmental stimulation to distract them. Sometimes I fail to ask follow-up questions or engage curiously with someone in the moment, because it’s more than enough to process what they’re saying and everything else that’s going on around me. Then, when the interaction is over, I think of all kinds of questions I wish I had asked! An ongoing interaction that occurs in bits and pieces, and at least partly in writing, gives me a better opportunity to show my interest in a person because I can process what they’re saying and consider questions about it when I’m alone in the in-between times.

If you’re an extrovert and trying to get to know another extrovert, you might both prefer the in-person interactions. And that’s great if you can work out the place, time, and comfort-level issues. But if not, you too can take advantage of getting to know each other a little bit at a time over various virtual channels. And we can all take advantage of the ways in which virtual interactions help us keep up relationships that are already established. My sister and I live on opposite coasts. We’d love to have coffee in person every Saturday morning, but we can’t. Instead, we talk most Saturdays for an hour or three, often while walking or washing dishes. We send texts. We exchange memes and reels. We like and comment on each other’s social media posts. While the topics of your discussions and content of your exchanges may be different for more professional relationships, the concept is the same. Our connection is maintained because we have options for doing so other than in person. My colleague, Kim Christfort, recently wrote about the science of long-distance professional relationships in Fast Company. In her words, “spontaneity is overrated.” If you can’t count on running into someone by the watercooler, go ahead and schedule some kind of virtual connection.

There are other ways, too, that interacting virtually can make it easier for some of us to connect and relate. While there are certainly many reasons that spending lots of time on Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms can be tiring or disconcerting, there are also ways in which it can be helpful. For example, there is some evidence that the structure and control of a Zoom meeting might be comforting for introverts, and that being able to see what you look like while you’re interacting with someone might provide you with helpful feedback about how you’re feeling about something or reduce social anxiety.

Are you one of those people who is brilliant at remembering people’s names? I, unfortunately, am not. I know it’s a skill one can get better at, but I sometimes feel like my brain short-circuits in a setting with lots of people around, and I often can’t remember people’s names. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by the environment, I might momentarily fail to remember the name even of someone I’ve met many times! Being able to see people’s names under their images on a video call is a huge help for me. Sure, we can use nametags in person, but then there’s that awkward moment of glancing down, trying to read the nametag without looking like you’re reading the nametag. You know that moment?

And there really is something to being able to use someone’s name when you’re building a relationship. I recently accompanied a friend to her office holiday party. I met quite a few people very briefly in the beginning rush of entering the party, and since I didn’t know any of them it was quite a lot for me to take in all at once. I certainly didn’t process or remember any of their names. But throughout the evening, people repeatedly said my name, and each time I had this little jolt of feeling seen and known in this room full of strangers. I also kept thinking, “Wow these people are all so good at this socializing thing!” And then I’d realize they were talking to my friend, who they work with, and who is also named Suzanne. 🙂 The point is, it was a visceral demonstration for me of the power of using people’s names.

In the old days of meeting in real life, we sometimes bonded with others just by sitting side by side in meetings. You might have exchanged a side comment or two during a discussion, or just shared a glance, a smile, or even an eye roll, and then during breaks you could have a quick chat. All of this can be difficult in a Zoom meeting, where really only one person can speak at once, and it’s impossible to catch anyone’s eye. On the other hand, there are ways in which video calls make it easier for more people to contribute to a discussion. Let’s say Sarah wanted to ask her question about magic in a large group. It could take quite a long time to go around and hear everyone’s answer. But using the chat feature allows lots of people to answer quickly, and reading through people’s responses (with their names attached!) takes much less time. Chat also allows people to interject a question when someone is speaking without interrupting them or waiting for the perfect time in-between breaths. And it enables people to support someone’s point or give kudos without shouting out over whoever is talking. Especially for introverts, who tend to be less likely to fight for the floor, the chat feature can be an easier way to participate in a discussion. And it’s easier to build relationships with others when you’re all part of the conversation than if you’re just a listener.

I dearly hope we will soon be able to get together without worrying so much about everyone’s health. But I’m equally grateful that we have so many other ways to connect.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.