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Face to face: The power of direct contact in the digital age

There is no substitute for high-context communications and training that occurs between two people, engaging privately, face-to-face


“Body language, tone of voice, eye contact – all these things can contribute equally to the intention and meaning of the message being conveyed along with the words that are spoken or written,” Willing writes.

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I read an article recently about how people, especially younger people, are averse to phone calls. According to one survey among Gen Z participants, one-third of participants found calls to be “awkward,” and 24% said that they would never just call someone out of the blue. Many prefer texting as their primary form of communication, even with someone in the next room where they could walk over and have an in-person conversation.

We live in an increasingly digital and virtual world, and there are many advantages that go along with that. But there are also significant drawbacks. Studies have shown that increased use of technology for communication has decreased children’s social skills, and this deficit follows them into adulthood. I have talked to several chiefs who say that this is one area where new recruits show real weakness.

Context is key

Effective communication is about context as well as content. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact – all these things can contribute equally to the intention and meaning of the message being conveyed along with the words that are spoken or written. These are factors that are often lost in digital communication.

The highest context communication occurs between two people, engaging privately, face-to-face. In this context, all visual and verbal cues are available. The lowest context communication is probably something like a group text involving emojis. We mostly operate somewhere in between, although increasingly toward the side of lower context interaction.

There are certain things that simply must be done face-to-face for the best results. We’ve all been involved in email chains or Zoom meetings that seemed to go nowhere because participants’ real feelings or intentions are not apparent. We’ve all taken online classes with one eye on our phones. Digital communication both stimulates distraction and enables it.

Difficult conversations, important decisions and contentious negotiations require higher context communication. An online PowerPoint presentation about sexual harassment does not have the same impact as an in-person class with a skilled facilitator. A performance evaluation delivered via Zoom does not have the same weight as one that occurs face-to-face.

It is nearly impossible to “read the room” when presenting over Zoom. People who want to disengage find it very easy to do so, and these are often the people who you most need to reach. Mediating a conflict between individuals remotely allows people who would rather not be there to just go through the motions of participation. And virtual contact can become a self-reinforcing cycle – the more people use it, the weaker their communication skills become, and the more they want to avoid direct contact with others.

Where can we improve?

At the company officer/supervisor level, regular direct interaction is a good place to start. Some ideas:

  • Share a bowl of popcorn while watching a bad movie together.
  • Get in the habit of doing informal debriefs after incidents.
  • Ask open-ended questions of your crewmates and listen attentively to the answers.
  • Include interactive, hands-on training and projects in every shift.
  • Be clear that you are available if someone wants to talk privately – and then demonstrate that availability by not burying yourself on your own devices during every minute of downtime in the station.

At the chief level, connect with your members at all ranks:

  • Don’t settle for only virtual meetings, regardless of the convenience.
  • Be visible. Show up in person at stations, at all chief’s ranks.
  • Form personal relationships with leaders in other organizations, both within your jurisdiction and with community groups.
  • Encourage through your attendance and/or planning events that bring people together in person – a coffee hour with a community leader, training that involves in-person facilitators and class participation.

No substitute

Remote communication is a tremendous tool and was especially important for organizations as they navigated through the difficult days of the initial COVID pandemic. Now that those challenges have become more manageable, some organizations remain committed to a virtual approach to communication, either by choice or default, and this may not be serving individuals or the organization well. In some circumstances, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. The best leaders know this from their own experience and will do what is necessary to make sure all those who work with them have the necessary skills, opportunities and motivation to maximize the effectiveness of communication, under any conditions.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.