Why Face to Face Meetings are so Powerful

This is why Face to face meetings are powerful. Today we hear that the British Prime Minister is flying to Brussels for dinner with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-55240910
This is a last attempt to come up with a Brexit agreement before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union at the end of the month. The United Kingdom left the EU at the end of last year, and the plan was for the negotiations to be completed this year, to give enough time for businesses to adapt to the changes. Yet as I write, nothing has been agreed and gives very little time for businesses and authorities to have everything in place. Given the seriousness of this, I am not surprised Boris Johnson has decided to fly out to Brussels for a last minute meeting. To be fair, our Prime Minister has had to deal with Covid, although the EU offered to delay the deadline, but this was not accepted by UK.
Both sides have had ongoing negotiations; mainly via virtual meetings although there have been several face to face meetings with the two negotiating teams. Whilst Johnson and von der Leyen have spoken virtually, they have not been involved in the negotiations face to face. Speculation is that once dinner is over, the teams will be asked to leave, to allow the leaders to discuss, in private the ‘sticking points’ from the negotiations, so an agreement can finally be confirmed.
So why is it so important that there is a face to face meeting?
In the last few months, virtual meetings have become the norm due to the pandemic. A lot of good business development, negotiations and delivery have taken place virtually. However, I am aware of meetings or legal agreements which are of a significant nature, requiring individuals to meet (in a socially distanced way) to sign documents. Leading law firms in the City are partially open for this specific reason. For those extremely important agreements, the last moments to re-assure and confirm trust are essential. A virtual meeting, however well run, are unable to portray those fundamental human connections that are essential for high powered agreements.
Demonstrating respect Johnson is showing respect and how seriously he takes the agreement (and its current status) by taking the time and effort to fly to Brussels for dinner. The fact he is doing this, shows what a priority it is for him. I am not in a position to comment on how involved he has been in the negotiations: he has delegated his team to lead this up until now, which is perfectly reasonable. But his presence says “I mean business” and also acknowledges that this serious and is a last attempt to come to some sort of agreement.
Showing charisma: Boris Johnson is known for his charisma and charm, and this plays to his strengths in a face to face situation. Johnson and von der Leyen have met before. But Johnson, in fairness, has a mixed profile within Europe, so he would have to work hard to ‘win’ von der Leyen over in such an important conversation. When chatting over dinner, it is a more relaxed atmosphere: less formal than the negotiations, and a chance to do “Small talk”. Now small talk is something I recommend if there is time, as it is an opportunity to get to know someone on a human level, behind the mask of business. It is more tricky to do this virtually!
The Human Connection: when the stakes are high, humans need to build trust; to understand each other and ‘read’ each other. Is this person trustworthy? Do they exhibit integrity and honesty; do they actually take the situation seriously. Do they actually respect the enormity of the situation. Gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, body language AND tone of voice all play a role in this. And being face to face makes it easier to both demonstrate and read these key characteristics.
Mehrabian identified the three types of personal communication. Unfortunately his research has been misquoted. As well as the words we speak, non-verbal communication (including gestures, facial expressions and body language), and our vocal tone play a role.
Non-Verbal communication: we pick up information about other people in the room from their body language; gestures and facial expressions. Their energy could drop or they could even show ‘emotional leakages’ or microexpressions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microexpression (or nervous tics) that could reveal useful information during an important negotiation. If they react, even in a minute way, it could provide some information. Whilst virtual calls are very useful, it isn’t possible to pick up these microexpressions in the same way. That is a reason for face to face meetings for incredibly important meetings, to take place where possible.
Likewise, although we hear people’s voices on virtual calls, there are a number of subtle nuances that are difficult to pick up due to the technology. If we are in the room a very tiny change in the timbre of the voice can be interpreted in a different way. It is almost like a verbal version of a micro expression. And subconsciously we are able to process this as information. We could demonstrate trustworthiness with the warmth of our voices when we speak, or an edge to the voice — even a subtle change, that could show anger or frustration. These are useful pieces of information.
In the end, this will have been one of the most important dinners Johnson has ever attended. Whether there is ultimately an agreement of any kind is yet to be seen. However, making an effort to have a face to face meeting shows a commitment to finding a deal. Remember, there is genuine power in the human connection that for very important conversations, is absent in virtual calls.
Susan Heaton-Wright is a virtual corporate speaking and communications trainer. She empowers individuals and teams to make a positive impact in all business conversations: from meetings through to presentations and pitching, virtually and face to face. www.superstarcommunicator.com

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