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The Practical Secret to Fostering Connection in the Digital Realm

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Advice for the design industry from a TED speaker on fostering engagement and communication in a digital world. 

The past two years have set in motion an extreme transformation in the way we work and interact with our clients and colleagues. In an industry built upon physical space, many have found the shift to digital communication and interaction disorienting.  

Here’s one way to think about it: For years, maybe even every day, you drove to in-person meetings. Your “tool” for connecting with your clients and peers was a car. How you operated that tool was second nature: You didn’t need to think about where the key went or how to reverse out of an alley. You knew, because you’d done it a million times. Now imagine buckling in one day, only to realize your car was now a helicopter. You simply could not rely on your routine to get you to your destination.  

Just as you can’t fly a helicopter in the same manner that you can drive a car, interaction doesn’t remain the same when the means of connection has completely shifted. And although technology enabled us to continue working during these last two years, we have learned that gathering and collaborating digitally is, by nature, different than in person, and needs to be addressed as a separate means of connecting. More of the world is opening back up, but digital communication is here to stay. How do we continue to foster that connection?  

As part of ThinkLab’s 2022 Design Hackathon, we turned to Professor Eddie Obeng for his ideas on how to connect. As our hackathon’s keynote speaker, Obeng presented practical new ways we can communicate and engage in the digital realm. And the best news: many of the superpowers you already had, if leveraged properly, can work in the digital world, too. 

Here’s how to thrive — not just survive — in this hybrid era.

 

Engage the senses available to you. 

One of the fundamental shifts in moving from an in-person to a digital interaction is that nearly all the sensory interaction disappears. There is no sense of touch, smell, taste, movement, or proximity, just limited experiences of sight and sound.

As Professor Obeng puts it, “It’s no longer three-dimensional. [Without those other senses] the digital interaction has taken the whole human experience and given us half of two little bits.”  

Less sensory stimuli means more limited means of engagement. Professor Obeng explains, “Because technology takes away most of our senses, you must remember that it is not about you. It is about them, and you need to intentionally focus on the other person.”

Obeng prompts us to adjust sight and sound, those senses that are available in the digital world: “Cover up your face with a sticky note. It will help you listen when you aren’t distracted by your own presence and keep communication focused on the other person.” 

So how can you make sure your client or colleague feels they are at the center of a discussion? Professor Obeng suggests using the “You, Us, Me” approach. Here’s one example of this approach in action:  

  • YOU: When you do your homework and have a bit of background on the person you are meeting with, you can start the conversation based on what you know of them. This is immediately more engaging than having someone come to you with a self-centered monologue. 
  • US: Next, pivot to how that bit of information creates a connection between the two of you. Common ground makes mutual benefit seem more feasible. 
  • ME: Finally, after showing that you have invested in getting to know them and explained what you share in common, you can close with your ask.  

“You, Us, Me” moves the focus off of you and reintroduces engagement and interaction from both parties.  

Let’s look at how to move from an invitation to dialogue to a meaningful conversation.  

 

Give away your power. 

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You have to give to get.” According to Professor Eddie Obeng’s keynote, this is the foundation of meaningful digital connection and interaction. When you give your audience a platform and a prompt to respond to, you are inviting interaction and engagement.  

Obeng suggested that you start an interaction with a client or colleague by asking them to share their greatest hopes and fears for the time you will spend together. Not only does this invite them to have a say and a chance to influence the meeting, but you are also providing yourself with a road map to success. If you know their greatest fears, you have the ability to suggest approaches to overcome those concerns. Or, if you can’t overcome them, you at least have the opportunity to acknowledge and contain those fears. Knowing someone's greatest hopes for an interaction is like knowing a shortcut for making the meeting mutually beneficial at the end.  

Let’s look at a presentation framework that sets everyone on the path forward, together. 

 

Use the 5Ps framework.  

When you hear “the 5 Ps,” many think of product marketing, but Obeng introduced the 5Ps™ framework (which can be found in the QUBE tool kit here) for setting up a meaningful interaction from the very beginning. When working with a client, outline your clear and concise message by addressing each of the 5Ps: 

  1. Purpose: Why is this important or necessary? 
  2. Principles: What are the key things to remember to do/not to do? 
  3. People: Who are the key stakeholders? 
  4. Process: How could it be carried out? 
  5. Performance: What will happen when we have succeeded? 

Obeng describes how the 5P framework facilitates a strong connection: “When you work with clients early on, if you take away their fears and start to frame something, then you can give them a clear view of what the brief looks like. If you can tell someone this, they start to relax, because you can tell them what the journey is going to look like, how it will be useful to them, and what success will look like at the end.” 

 

Tie it together with the right tools.

We now know that meaningful virtual connection is possible. And we can get there by centering the other person in the discussion and giving away our power as a presenter, thus moving from a monologue to a dialogue — one that covers real hopes and concerns and outlines the key elements that need to be explored to achieve success. 

Professor Obeng also leaves us with a challenge of self-reflection: “Are you using the right tools, or are you using the tools you have and know how to use?”  

The world has changed. Your trusty car hasn’t disappeared... but some of your clients prefer to meet on a helipad now. That is to say, have the tools you use to engage and connect changed? Yes. Do digital tools have a long way to go to be equivalent to in-person interactions? Also, yes. But the superpower of using empathy to create human connection remains the secret to success — whether connecting in person or virtually. 

The industry evolution research that ThinkLab is doing as part of the 2022 hackathon would not be possible without our sponsors; Mannington Commercial, HNI Global, Brown Jordan, Daltile, Milliken, and Mecho. 

Erica Waayenberg is the head of Research & Content Development for ThinkLab, the research division of  SANDOW Design Group. At ThinkLab, we combine SANDOW Media’s incredible reach to the architecture and design community through brands like Interior Design Media, Metropolis, Luxe, and Material Bank with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities for the design industry. Join in to explore what’s next at thinklab.design/join-in. 

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