Building Relationships in a Virtual World

Building relationships in a virtual world 

Nick Davies believes that the machine is not everything. Building relationships? Read on.
Instant nuances are lost to us. Wondered why, through lock-down, you have been so tired at the end of the day when all you’ve done is sit in front of your screen?
It’s because your conscious brain has been doing all the work ordinarily performed by your subconscious.
What does this mean for building relationships in business? Put simply, it makes it harder and means you have to get all the basic stuff right.
The stages through which every business relationship will move are, from the bottom up:
Bond, Trust, Respect, Acceptance, Understanding, and Acknowledgement

Building relationships very quickly…

•I acknowledge your existence.
•I then understand your role and what 
it is you do
•Once I know more. I accept you have 
skills/an offering I could use
•You earn my respect by doing a good 
•I now trust you
•Over time we form a bond
It is quicker and easier to move through these when done in person.
In particular, trust is harder to establish in the virtual world and more fragile, in that it is easily broken.
One only has to look to social media to witness how quick people are to express relationship destroying comments, comments they would not dream of making in person.

The hierarchy of communication methods

1. In-person is best
2. The Zoom or MS Teams call is next best because you can at least see the other person.
3. The telephone allows you to learn more about the other person’s emotional state. Their  feeling(s) towards what you’re saying, gain an insight into their general mood and demeanour. Through their tone, pitch and volume, etc.
Plus indulging in small talk and a bit of chit chat is easier. This is a jolly good thing because what’s going on during such conversation is what’s referred to as self-disclosure.
4. Email is great for sending documents, confirming appointments, meetings and arrangements but not so hot when it comes to establishing relationships.
Human beings have evolved to communicate face-to-face, outside, whilst in motion, living in communities of up to 150 individuals. We are inherently social beings.

Explicit and Implicit

Our communication is delivered and received in two ways: explicit and implicit.
The former is the words we utter, the latter is the rest. The rest is all the signals we are giving and receiving at a subconscious level.
In fact, the bulk of our communication is sub-conscious. Our brains humming away in the background interpreting all those minute changes in air pressure (proprioception). Micro-gestures  like the fleeting raising of an eyebrow. The barely identifiable smirk, which flashes across a face. Or the lightning-fast movement of the hand to the neck, the barely audible ‘Ugh’.

Opinion on building relationships

Zoom and Teams: Eyes and Ears 

Where were you looking on your last video call? At the screen? At the other person? Of course, you were.
You looked at them on your screen. Except you weren’t. Not from their perspective. From their perspective, you were looking slightly lower than where their face was and most definitely not in their eyes.
In order for the other person to feel as though you are really engaged, connecting on an emotional level, you need to be looking directly into the camera, NOT at the screen!
This, however, presents its own problem. Because whilst you are looking into the camera, you’re unable to see their facial reaction to what you are saying and that’s a big disadvantage and is why you have to ‘check in’ and find out how they feel about the information you’re sharing.
Ordinarily, we are able to tell, with unerring accuracy how what we are saying is being received. Because our listener is emitting almost imperceptible signals we pick up on.

Balance is Key for Building Relationships

Get the balance right. Lots of looking into the camera when you are talking, with the occasional fleeting look at the screen and almost 100% into the lens when listening.
And remember to ’check in’. ‘How do you feel about that?’ ‘What are your feelings about the proposal?’ ‘Was there anything mentioned that made you feel uncomfortable/nervous/excited/frustrated’?
Equally, don’t assume the other person knows how you feel. If they don’t ask, it’s up to you to let them know.

Camera Savvy for Building Relationships

Make sure your camera is pointed directly at you, rather than angled down or up. Face a window or light source, don’t have it behind you and for goodness sake have some personal items, pictures, books, flowers in the background so that your ‘audience’ gets a sense of your personality.
Again, I have lost count of the number of people with whom I have spoken who have been set against an off-white wall or vast, expanse of ‘Elephant’s Breath’ with only the fraction of a radiator to puncture the monotony.
Think about it. We normally meet people face to face, where there is a cacophony of ‘visual noise’ going on: their clothes, accessories, shoes, bags.
We are either in an office or coffee shop with other people wandering around, vehicles passing by, sights of every hue and colour surrounding us. This provides context and background and things on which to comment.
I recently had a call with someone who was sitting next to an amazing stone window about which I remarked. This led to a delightful chat about their home and where they lived.
Your room and home are a reflection of your personality: let them shine.

Establish Rapport

Establishing rapport in the virtual world. We are all familiar with the idea that people in rapport ‘mirror’ each other’s body language.
Much of this is lost when communicating virtually. One, because we are not in each other’s company, two, because our image of each other is much smaller – we are not to scale and three, most of the time we are seated, meaning two thirds of our body is not visible.
However, all is not lost because we also ‘mirror’ and therefore, build rapport through language.

Visual – Auditory – Kinaesthetic

These three words refer to ‘sub-modalities’. These are groups of words people tend to favour over the other when describing what they mean. Permit me to furnish you with just a few examples:


• ‘I see what you mean’
• ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel’
• ‘We need to really focus on this’
When listening to someone using these kinds of phrases it tells you they ‘see’ things, they visualise them and that, if you want to establish a deeper connection with them, you should use similar ‘visual’ references too.


•‘That just doesn’t ring true to me’
•‘I love the sound of that’
•‘That strikes a chord’
This tells you the person thinks in sounds. They are more likely to say, ‘Tell me what you mean’, than ‘Show me what you mean’.


•‘They really need to get a grip’
•‘We must get a handle on this’
•‘My gut feeling tells me…’
Users of such phrases tend to ‘feel’ things rather than visualise or hear them. In which case, use similar language and they’ll ‘feel’ more ‘connected’ to you. There’s little doubt the past 12 months would have been much worse had we not had the technology to see each other whilst conversing.
However, I suspect we can all agree it’s nowhere near as good as in-person.
Below is an extract from the short story The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, which I think sums it up perfectly:
Forster wrote the story in 1909.

This article originally appeared in PM magazine. For further details go to


“I want you to come and see me.” Vashti watched his face in the blue plate. “But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?” “I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.” “Why not?” “One mustn’t.” “You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”

Forster wrote the story in 1909. 

This article originally appeared in PM magazine. For further details go to