Communication at a Distance

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Alyssa Hallgren, MS, CRC, LPC

Communication has always been important in our interactions with friends, family, co-workers and professionals. From a young age, we begin learning the “dos and don’ts” of communication to ensure that we don’t offend those we are interacting with. In the age of social distancing, we are communicating in all new ways and have new rules to learn.

Thanks to advances in technology, there are a wide variety of ways that we can choose to communicate with others from a distance. How do you decide which method to use and how do you use them appropriately? Let’s explore our options, starting with the options that closest resemble in-person communication.


Facetime, Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and many other platforms allow us to talk to and see people who are not nearby. This real-time communication method allows us to see facial expressions, hear changes in tone of voice, show off cool items and feel more connected to the person we are talking to. When using these platforms, it is important to find a quiet space with few distractions and a strong internet connection. Have your phone, laptop or tablet propped up in a way that the person you are talking to feels that they are at your eye level rather than looking only at part of your face, down at you or up at you. Ensure that you have adequate lighting without glare and enjoy your chat!

Phone Calls

Phone calls are more familiar to older generations and allow for real-time communication and the ability to hear tone of voice. Unlike video chat, non-verbal communication and facial expressions cannot be seen so it is important that you communicate your response rather than nodding or gesturing in some other way. Although the person on the other end of the phone cannot see what you are doing, it is important that you are in a distraction free environment where you can focus on what they are saying and participate in the conversation.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging, through sites such as Facebook and Skype, allow real-time exchange of written communication. If the person you are talking to is “online,” they will be able to see what you have written once you send it and reply promptly. As this platform does not allow us to see facial expressions or hear changes in tone of voice, it is not recommended that this be used for serious or emotional conversations. It is also important to remember that there may be some delay due to each person’s typing speed and to allow each person a chance to participate in the chat.


E-mail is often used to send non-urgent or professional communications. It is not expected that there be an instant reply; however, it is reasonable to expect a response and to provide a response within 24 to 72 hours. As e-mail is typically used for more professional communications, it is expected that proper spelling and grammar are used. Use the subject line to help the reader know what to expect.

Regular Mail

Sending letters and cards through the mail is a fun, personal way to communicate with people who are not near you. It also provides an opportunity to send pictures or other small items. Make sure that your handwriting is legible and an appropriate size for the reader.

Text Messaging

Text messaging is a commonly used tool that allows us to send quick messages to and from our cell phones. Expectations vary widely about the appropriate amount of time to reply and some people do not carry their cell phone with them at all times. It is important to discuss expectations with the person you are trying to talk to and consider other methods of communication if you are looking for a more real-time conversation. Text messages cannot convey emotion well and it is important that you are aware of your tone (more on this later). Texts are typically best for sharing quick bursts of information such as “I am taking the dog for a walk and will be back in 30 minutes” or “Can we set up a time to video chat?”

Now that we know more about our options to communicate from a distance, let’s review some general guidelines:

Be Clear: Wherever there is an opportunity for communication, there are opportunities for miscommunication. Try to be as specific as possible and avoid vague terms such as “this,” “that” and “thing” and use the name of the item or description of the idea instead. If the person you are talking to is not communicating clearly, respond with a clarifying question such as “when you say ‘that will work,’ were you referring to the Saturday or Sunday plan?” Clarity is also important when using platforms that involve your voice. Most microphones on phones, tablets and laptops are pointed in only one direction, meaning that you will have to be facing the receiver and speaking loudly and clearly to be heard by the other party. 

Be Aware of Tone: When we are speaking to someone in person, over the phone or through a video-chat, we have many ways of changing our voice to show excitement, sarcasm, frustration and much more. It is important to understand that in written conversation such as instant messages, e-mails, letters and texts, these do not always come across as intended. Most readers are going to interpret capital letters and exclamation points as yelling or anger, even if that is not the intention of the writer. Take this as an opportunity to expand your vocabulary – if you are trying to convey that you are very happy, look up “synonyms for happy” and use words such as joyful, or glad.

Be Respectful of Time: Just as you would likely have a scheduled time to go to a friend’s house, it is recommended that you schedule a time for communicating at a distance. That way, each party can be prepared to dedicate their time and attention to the other.

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