We have all become unwitting participants in a massive unregulated social experiment. For a little over a decade, we have forced ourselves to evolve from beings who communicate face-to-face, to beings who spend a significant portion of our work and personal lives communicating virtually.

The advantages are obvious and have overwhelmed any serious discussion until now of the potential downside. In the argot of Silicon Valley, virtual communication removes friction, it’s asynchronous,

and virtually free. We save on travel – alone enough of a justification for corporate cost-cutters. And its many efficiencies mean that I can plow through huge amounts of email traffic, for example, at a great rate, performing triage, deleting, and answering with pre-determined word pills, giving me an enormous sense of accomplishment.

What could be wrong with all that? Email makes our lives easier, social media makes our lives fuller, and audio and video conferencing make our calendars easier to manage.

But what’s happening is that the evidence is beginning to pile up that all is not well in cyberspace. Studies show that we misunderstand the intent of other people’s emails at a much higher rate than we think. And they misunderstand ours. Employee disengagement started to rise in the last decade as we moved into virtual living. Various slices of the population increase their likelihood of depression as their use of mobile phones increases. If I’m more connected than ever before, why do I feel so alone?

We all complain about the limitations of technology – the dropped calls, the frozen video conferences, and the emails that get lost in the Spam folder. And many of us have noticed that audio conferences – the virtual equivalent for most office workers of the old-fashioned face-to-face team meetings – are badly run, poorly attended, and often counterproductive. The first five minutes of most audio conferences are a complete loss: “Hi, who just joined? Is that Bob? How are you? Oh, did someone drop off? Hi, Jane, what’s going on? Who just joined? Janet, did you receive the slides? Who just joined? Bill, we’re getting a lot of background noise from your three dogs; can you put yourself on mute?” And so on.

But those are the superficialities. My two years of research into how virtual communication work

s found that, at a much deeper level, when we switch face-to-face for digital connections, we suffer in five ways. In part because we’re still communicating as if we were talking to each other in person, we are generals fighting the last communications war.

How does this communications breakdown occur? The brain is a multi-channel prediction machine whose job it is to anticipate danger to keep us alive. What we care about principally at the unconscious level where communication takes place is what other people intend toward us. Are they friend or foe? And a host of other basic questions. Face-to-face, we get a hosepipe of body language clues about how other people are doing and what they are intending. In the virtual world, most of that is missing.

And so, because the brain doesn’t like missing information, we make it up. And because it’s better in an evolutionary sense to assume that there’s danger around every corner, I assume the worst. I assume that the tone of your email to me is hostile. I assume that the silence on the audio conference means everyone else has lost interest or hates me. I assume that the face I see on the video conference is further away than it is, because it’s two dimensional and thus hard to estimate. And so I shout, and work harder than I have to, and so find video conferencing exhausting.

In the virtual world, we suffer from a lack of unconscious feedback, the kind we get easily face-to-face. As a result, and because we assume the worst, we’re much more ready to pick fights in the virtual world. We’re much more likely to misunderstand the other person, and we have much less empathy for their plight.

As a result of that communications breakdown, we make poorer decisions in virtual settings, and our connections with other humans are much weaker, more fragile, and liable to sour and be harder to restore to their former sweetness and light.

So the apparent efficiencies of virtual communications mask a plethora of subtle problems that we’re only just beginning to understand.

What’s to be done? There is no single cure. Instead, we need to learn a new language of emotion, one that begins to replace the human intent that’s left out of the virtual conversation. We need to begin by asking, “how did what I just said make you feel?” to show people that we’re opening ourselves up to hearing (and respecting) their emotions so that we can better understand their intent.

For email, use those emojis and emoticons. They help avoid the classic misunderstanding when your witty joke becomes your colleague’s insult.

For audio conferences, have an MC who asks everyone on a regular basis how they are responding to the ongoing discussion. Put it in terms of a stoplight: Red means “Disaster – I’m really upset about something.” Yellow means “I’m OK, but a little stressed today.” And green means “Everything’s good. Count me in.”

And for those video conferences, keep them short, check intent regularly, and have a brightly lit room with props set both close and further away to give a sense of depth to the picture you’re presenting.

There are many other small, easy steps you can take to improve the emotional literacy of your virtual communications; refer to my new book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World for hundreds more.

About Dr. Nick Morgan: 

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication speakers, theorists and coaches. A passionate teacher, he is committed to helping people find clarity in their thinking and ideas – and then delivering them with panache. To learn more about Dr. Morgan, visit his Public Words website.