While wearing masks is necessary to help curb the novel coronavirus's spread, masks can hinder nonverbal communication by hiding much of a person's face—potentially undermining our ability to build a rapport with our colleagues. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Dustin York, an associate professor and director of undergraduate and graduate communications at Maryville University, offers eight tips on how to overcome those disadvantages.
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8 tips on building rapport while wearing a mask
1. Don't wear clear masks unless it's necessary
While clear masks may seem like an obvious way to allow colleagues to see your face while still keeping others safe from the coronavirus, some people find clear masks to be unsettling, York writes. Further, clear masks often fog up, according to York.
As such, York suggests people avoid using clear masks unless doing so is necessary. For instance, a clear mask may be needed if the person you're speaking to is deaf, or if the audience you're addressing might include deaf people, York writes.
2. Practice how to talk with a mask on
Vocal quality is a key component in how people emotionally respond to you, and while wearing a mask, tone of voice plays an even bigger role than normal, York writes.
To make your voice more effective, York recommends practicing speaking while wearing a mask and remembering the acronym PAVE:
- Pause: Since we can't see each other's mouths, which can show when someone is pausing in conversation, make an effort to intentionally pause periodically to give people the chance to either jump into the conversation or to respond;
- Accentuate: Emphasize key phrases or words in varying ways by using different intonations;
- Volume: Speak up, as masks can muffle your voice—but be mindful of your volume, so you're not shouting; and
- Emotion: Try to use more expressive tones that convey emotions such as excitement and gratitude in the right moments, but be careful not to overdo it.
3. Be an active listener
While it's always important to be an active listener, this practice is especially important while wearing a mask because it can help you to "build rapport and increas[e] your perceived likeability," York writes.
To practice active listening while others are talking to you, nod and offer understanding sounds like "Mhm," York writes. If the person has finished talking, you can affirm that you're listening to them by saying things like, "And then what happened?" or "I'm listening." And if the person you're speaking with starts showing emotion, especially negative emotions like frustration, York suggests affirming their feelings by paraphrasing and acknowledging them, using phrases such as: "So do you mean…" or "What I hear you saying is… ."
4. Utilize your body language and other gestures
Using gestures while you're talking a little more than you normally would help you to better convey your meaning and emotion while wearing a mask, York writes, advising speakers to increase their gesturing level by about 10% from normal. "Obviously, you don't want to overdo it to the point where it distracts your audience or you look like a mime," he writes.
And although handshakes for years have been a common, important gesture to convey comradery, York recognizes that they should be avoided in light of the coronavirus epidemic. Instead, York suggests waving your hand when greeting others. "A friendly, animated wave can go a long way towards conveying that same sense of goodwill," he writes.
5. Mirror the person you're talking to
Mirroring is a behavior in which a person imitates the body language of the person or group with whom they're speaking, York notes. "A lot of mirroring happens naturally and unconsciously," he explains, and "[s]tudies have shown that it helps build rapport between individuals."
As such, the practice of intentional mirroring "has become more popular," York writes. However, he warns: "[Y]ou don't want to overdo it to the point where it becomes noticeable or unnatural. In this case, less is more."
6. Keep your toes and torso aligned
Research has shown that people tend to reveal what they're thinking with their toes and torso, York writes. For example, he writes, if you're in a meeting and you're hungry, your toes might start facing the door—which can be interpreted as a lack of interest.
Since we're not able to rely on our facial expressions to convey our interest in a conversation because of wearing masks, it's important that we use the rest of our bodies to do so. Therefore, we should be mindful that our toes and torsos are facing the person we're talking to, York writes.
7. Smile with your eyes—and practice
Smiling is a very important nonverbal form of communication, but our smiles can be hidden by masks. Smiling with your eyes can be a good alternative, York writes.
However, York notes that research has found smiling with your eyes sometimes can make you look angry, fearful, sad, or neutral. To avoid this, York recommends "intentionally wrinkling your eyes when you're wearing your mask," and practicing in front of a mirror with your mask on.
"As long as you're actually smiling with your mouth when you do this, it should look natural," York writes.
8. Know when to meet in person and when to meet virtually
For the most part, meeting in person is preferable to video conferencing, even if you have to wear masks during the meeting, York writes. And as more workplaces begin resuming in-person meetings, you'll likely face more choices of whether to meet in-person instead of virtually.
However, it's important to remember that there may still be situations in which a virtual meeting is better, especially if you or your colleagues are at high risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19 or are living with a high-risk person, York writes.
Practicing better communication will help beyond the pandemic
While these tips can help you build a rapport with colleagues even amid the challenges posed by the coronavirus epidemic, their benefits will extend beyond the crisis, York writes.
"Masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future," he notes, "But the time and effort you put into internalizing these tips won't just pay off during the pandemic. They'll continue to help you communicate more effectively when we're all able to show our full faces again" (York, Harvard Business Review, 9/28).