“They don’t know we’ve got legs”: meeting online and in-person

By Prof Nicola Yuill

Covid-19 restrictions haven’t just stopped us meeting in person – instead, they have nudged us into new ways of connecting. Humans are the ultimate social species: evolutionary biologists regard the human tendency towards cooperation as having created the complex coordination we manage in politics, the arts, economy and belief systems. At the micro-level, we know that people in conversation talk and move in fine synchrony together: the more synchronised the interactive dance, the better people get on and the happier they are to help each other. A conversation is as much the work of the body as the mind.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

So what happens when our interactions suddenly shift online? For many, work in a Covid-19 world now consists of sitting in front of a screen interacting with a succession of talking heads. Parents and toddlers join their playgroups with online singing and dancing from home. Schoolchildren spend some time in small social bubbles with the same peers, and some time at school online, maybe joining in a virtual class assembly or talking individually to a teacher via Skype. Health appointments such as diagnostic assessments may be held via Zoom, with the practitioner having a glimpse into our personal space at home, a window into our world, raising some new possibilities for social faux pas. Will anyone notice my polka dot pyjama trousers on a Zoom call? What happens if my online delivery driver rings the doorbell? Who might appear in the room, and will they be properly dressed?

These experiences are starkly different from their previous incarnations. For example, a medical appointment would involve preparing for a trip to the local hospital, sitting with strangers in the waiting room and taking part in a conversation – and the necessary interactional dance – with a nurse in the pared-down public space of a clinical setting.

What difference does moving online make to the attunement that skilled therapists and practitioners can build into their conversations with clients? On the Zoom or Room project, funded by the National Institute of Health Research through the Applied Research Collaboration Kent Surrey Sussex, we are looking at exactly this question. The aim is to provide guidelines and good practice to support practitioners in this situation. We are analysing videos of therapeutic conversations taken from in-person and online settings for the same kind of intervention, Video Interaction Guidance. VIG is the perfect setting for this project because trainee practitioners routinely record their meetings and have moved from in-person to online, so there is a ready source of data. What’s more, VIG itself is based on the principle that practitioners and clients will learn and change through observing and reflecting on videos of their own interactions. Much of our work in the ChatLab involves coding video interactions in very fine detail. The quality of interaction often rests on small but significant moments of attunement or disruption. By seeing how these patterns might be different in online meetings, we can understand what factors contribute to people feeling connected when they need to meet online.  As well as analysing the videos, we are conducting interviews and surveys with practitioners and their clients.

It’s too early to give definitive results yet but some things are already clear. First, there are the technical barriers to moving online. Some clients simply don’t have the equipment, internet service or suitable private space to join a meeting online, and there are important data protection and privacy issues, with different agencies making different judgements about what is possible. Second, having to move online has been very disruptive, but has also led to creative solutions being adopted, such as using phone or text-based media for clients who find it uncomfortable to talk via video and having greater flexibility, such as a health visitor ‘popping in’ later in the day if the baby is asleep on the first visit. Then there are those matters of etiquette already mentioned: they might seem trivial but they make a difference to how comfortable people feel.

Our survey is live now for practitioners and educators who meet clients or students online in a supportive capacity. For those who meet students online, we ask that supportive interactions are considered, such as mentoring or supervision meetings, rather than online education.

Take the survey here: http://bit.ly/ZoomRoomExperiences

or sign up for an interview here: http://bit.ly/VIGresearch

Nicola Yuill is a professor of Developmental Psychology and director of the Chat Lab. In addition to Prof Yuill, the Zoom-Room project includes Research Fellow Dr Devyn Glass (Chat Lab) and Education Psychologists Zubeida Dasgupta.

Find out more about our research on Developmental and Clinical Psychology

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