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April 30, 2020

Connecting in a Time of Isolation: Our Expert Interview With Melanie Katzman

Rachel Salaman


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Human connection is so fundamental to success at work that Dr Melanie Katzman wrote a book about it. “Connect First” struck a chord, and the book quickly climbed to the number-one spot in the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list.

This was just months before the surprise appearance of COVID-19, which has closed offices around the world and scattered close-knit team members to solitary kitchen tables and bedroom desks.

For many of us, a “great connection” is now more likely to mean a stable video link, rather than a shared water-cooler moment.

Connection in a Global Lockdown

So how much of Katzman’s advice is still relevant when we can’t meet face-to-face? Well, more than you might think.

As Katzman told me in our Expert Interview podcast, connecting “is about paying attention to your behaviors and the impact they have on other people” – and that’s true in remote communication as much as in person. 

In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Katzman explains how her book grew out of her work as a psychologist.

Human Sustainability

The concept of “human sustainability” lies at the heart of Katzman’s work. 

We’re sustained by other people recognizing, respecting, and including us. This gives us that all-important “reason to show up, to work hard, and to do our best.” 

The challenge, in a time of isolation, is how to convey that reinforcing energy without being physically present – and how to experience it. 

Being Seen

Let’s take one of Katzman’s tips as an example: see everybody. For Katzman, “the act of being seen is one of the greatest ways of demonstrating respect.” But, too often, people become invisible.

“Who are you not seeing?" she asks. "Are you not seeing the receptionist, who sees you every morning, or the janitor who’s cleaning your office? Are you walking into a meeting and only talking to the people that you know, or want to know, and not making an effort to introduce yourself to the people that are around you? I encourage everybody to truly look at who is around them.” 

And this is especially relevant now. After all, many of us are still meeting people every day via our computers, perhaps even more than normal. 

When I think about conference calls I’ve had recently, a few behaviors jump out that made a difference to how well participants related to one another.

Videoconferencing Tips

In a recent meeting, I opted to go audio-only, even though the other participants used their webcams. 

If I’d wanted to, I could have zoned out from the meeting and started checking emails or social media. No one knew what I was doing, which made it harder for us all to connect.

So, if possible, try to encourage everyone in a virtual meeting to turn on their cameras. It's a great way to boost engagement and foster a sense of togetherness.

Using people’s names makes a big difference, too. Not only does it add a friendly and structured note, but “it’s a neural hack,” Katzman says. “It switches people on.” 

Listening in a Remote Meeting

In one of my recent meetings, the host used our names liberally throughout. Because of this, it didn’t feel awkward or unfair when he addressed quiet participants directly, to encourage their input.

This same host was great at active listening, which is more important than ever when you’re meeting online.

He focused entirely on the person who was speaking, then checked that he’d properly understood by feeding back their point. I, for one, felt “seen” as well as “heard.”

The Right Tools, the Right Mindset

In another meeting, I felt a bit lost in a crowd of tiny blurred screens. Then I remembered that videoconferencing software comes with several ways to get noticed.

You can share your thoughts via chat, for instance. And some apps let you raise a virtual hand to make a relevant point or register a view. 

You may be sitting at home. You may even be wearing sweatpants. But you can still contribute and connect with your team, with the right tools and the right mindset.

“Sometimes the way that we have an impact is [with] the questions that we ask, or it’s the people that we bring together, or it’s what we have to share,” Katzman reflects. And none of those things depend on physical presence.

Listen to Our Interview With Melanie Katzman

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with our monthly Expert Interviews.

Mind Tools Premium and Corporate members can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Melanie Katzman in the Mind Tools Club.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including 200+ Expert Interviews.

How are you staying connected with others? Are you talking to your co-workers more often now, or less? Let us know in the comments below.

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