Mastering the Virtual Practice: Virtual vs. Face-to-Face Meetings

After the telephone was invented, humans imagined overcoming time, space and travel limitations by combining audio and video transmissions. Inventors and business leaders believed that virtual meetings would be indistinguishable from face-to-face contact and would eventually replace the need for physical meetings. Today, videoconferencing providers like WebEx and Zoom claim they’re just as good as the real thing.

While it’s obvious that a digital interaction isn’t the same as a live connection, all of us have become absorbed in a good movie or a well-produced television show, even though we know intuitively that they aren’t real experiences. As powerful and helpful as virtual meetings are, fundamentally they’re different than face-to-face encounters. Understanding how these two types of meetings differ helps us advance our skills for conducting virtual meetings and enables us to become better equipped to get the most out of the tool.

Face-to-Face Meetings Activate Thousands of Years of Social Instincts

In simple terms, face-to-face meetings are real to us while virtual meetings have the characteristic of being almost real. This is because so much of communication is experienced through nonverbal cues. It’s much easier to establish rapport with someone when we’re close to and facing that person because of our instinct to match and pace him. Matching and pacing are instinctive signals that tell the other person, “I am a friend; I’m with you; there’s no danger here.” These signals, which have evolved over thousands of years of human beings living and working together, represent a huge amount of vital communication that doesn’t translate well in virtual meetings.

When you feel comfortable and in rapport with someone, mirror neurons in your brain are activated and chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin are released into your bloodstream. This happens when the person you’re talking with matches your posture and movements and paces the speed of your words and the tonality of your voice. Humans like others who are similar to themselves, and our social instincts evolved to activate these feelings. In higher doses and specific circumstances, the same chemicals cause us to feel in love.

As a result of these instinctive responses, face-to-face meetings present a greater opportunity for the salesperson to affect another person’s decision-making. That person feels an instinctive social obligation to accept the meeting, pay full attention, and respond positively to proposals or requests. Live meetings allow the presenter to activate the listener’s instincts, giving the presenter more control over the meeting’s potential outcome. In other words, the salesperson’s relationship skills and interpersonal style are critical during a face-to-face meeting and can influence the results.