In the era of online meetings, people settle for less in terms of good interaction, and it threatens well-being, says Associate Professor of Psychology Virpi-Liisa Kykyri. None of us can develop interaction skills on one’s own, it calls for contacts with other people. For success, it pays to observe some key factors.

“It was wonderful to meet the students!”

The first face-to-face meeting after the corona break was a wake-up call for psychologist and Associate Professor Virpi-Liisa Kykyri, one she has also been contemplating afterwards.

“There were no breaks, everything happened automatically, and everybody understood each other with ease,” she says. “After the pandemic, many people have encountered these kinds of significant moments.”

For Kykyri, the meeting had a power that cut to the heart of her research on interaction. It’s a serious issue about which she has much to say, as the ability to meet each other is crucial:

“Interaction is an essential part of human development. Our well-being is influenced by both the quantity and quality of social relationships. If there are problems with interaction in important personal relationships, such as in one’s family, at work or with studies, it affects our well-being in many ways.”

Kykyri has studied the success of interaction in different therapy situations, feedback discussions, and online meetings. Her interest is focused, for example, on how the connection is built between two or more people and what is the meaning of nonverbal bodily communication. Another interesting area of research is also what interactive elements change in online meetings.

She says that responsibility for interaction cannot be placed on the individuals only:

“Development in terms of interaction always requires contact with others. Interaction skills are not only personal skills that you should develop on your own. We need each other for learning how to interact and solve problems together. Of course, you can recognise your own developmental needs and put them on your to-do list.”

Social media does not mediate nonverbal messages to the body

As online meetings are increasing all the time, the significance of face-to-face meetings and interaction needs to be further emphasised, Virpi-Liisa Kykyri says.

When meeting online, we have to settle for less bodily communication, which is an integral part of interaction: facial expressions, gestures and movements with which we can read each other’s emotions, intentions and attitudes.

If the subtle bodily messages do not get across in interaction, the feelings they would arouse in the situation can remain unrecognised to the other person.

“In an online context, people can present and say things that are not true in their own body.”

“Neither do we know how what we say feels to another person, because we cannot read the nonverbal messages as accurately as in a face-to-face setting. Social media lacks nonverbal feedback that would be important to the sender of a message.”

Accordingly, social media contacts easily lead to aggressive comments and can increase confrontations. Moreover, misunderstandings are easier to correct face-to-face.

Vital emotional regulation is not learned in social media. This, too, calls for physical meetings.

“Emotions tend to be transmitted, for better or worse,” Kykyri states. “To feel well and accomplish things together, we must be able to regulate our emotions appropriately. Where necessary, we need to know how to calm down or wind up each other. These are shared skills obtained only in interaction.”

“When emotions are not used, they may deteriorate, or spill over as may have happened in meetings after the pandemic.”

Kykyri says she is especially worried about young adults who have been identified in research as getting totally lost in the online world and on social media platforms.

Interaction needs time

Society feels busier all the time, and people often use that feeling as an excuse to reduce time-consuming interaction. Kykyri emphasises, however, that interaction builds mutual trust and it cannot be ignored.

These matters have been studied extensively. As an example, Kykyri brings up a therapeutic alliance, i.e. a client-therapist relationship, which is regarded as key factor for the success of therapy. In psychological assessment feedback conversation, a psychologist has a dual task; both informing client about the test results and encouraging the client to comment on whether the feedback “fits” or not with the client’s own experience, and what it means to her/him.

“Such an alliance is built verbally and nonverbally from the first moments of the therapy. The client considers whether the therapist appears reliable, competent to help the client, and willing to listen in earnest.”

The findings are also supported by the experiences of sales personnel.

“A good salesperson uses 55 minutes of a 60-minute sales meeting to build trust with the customer, and the actual business transaction is made during the last five minutes. If we attempt to achieve more by skipping time-consuming interaction, the whole hour can be wasted,” Kykyri points out.

Strong evidence for the importance of interaction

The connections between well-being and interaction have been studied in psychology for several decades. There are many methods to do so:

  1. Observing speech, facial expressions and gestures provides information about events in interaction.
  2. Surveys and interviews provide information about interaction experiences and the development of well-being.
  3. Measurements of the autonomic nervous system provide information on how we are activated, stressed, and how we calm down and relax in interaction.
  4. Research on the brain can show the brain functions through with positive interaction experiences influence our well-being.

Evidence on the importance of good interpersonal contacts has been gained from clinical studies, psychotherapy research, developmental psychology research on early interaction as well as from brain research and the study of work communities and management research.

“For example, in young people good friendships are connected to good self-esteem. They can increase the well-being we experience and decrease the risk of illness, whereas a lack of friends and being teased or bullied are detrimental in these respects.”

Virpi-Liisa Kykyri is working at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä.

Virpi-Liisa Kykyri is working at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä.

How can we achieve good interaction?

Kykyri summarises what is needed for successful interaction:

  1. Genuine presence. Presence is achieved by concentrating your full attention on the discussion and your discussion partner. We communicate our presence more nonverbally than verbally.
  2. Active listening. Your discussion partner should feel they are being heard. Active listeners are interested and check whether they correctly understood what they heard. They do not rush to express interpretations or counterarguments.
  3. Reciprocity and the ability to engage. The ability to engage refers to making one’s own initiatives and responding to those of others. Engagement does not necessarily mean agreement but rather a commitment to promote joint discussion where everybody is heard in turn.
  4. Bold expression of one’s own viewpoints and related assertive argumentation for them where needed. Clear expression of one’s own wishes and limits increases mutual respect. Assertiveness requires recognition of oneself and one’s own needs, which may call for practice. Assertiveness involves self-respect without criticising others.
  5. Taking up disagreements in a constructive manner. A constructive approach is to use first-person messages, such as “I think it would be worth looking at the issue from this point of view as well” or “I find this kind of conduct unpleasant”. The expression of disagreements is facilitated when the group jointly agrees on the principle of reciprocal listening and on the purpose to bring different viewpoints into the discussion.
  6. Willingness to find joint solutions. Good interaction consists of both skill and will. Commitment to a shared goal also helps agree on the means and rules to support reaching the goal.

The way things are said makes a big difference.

Kykyri describes how participants’ discussions have been filmed in couples therapy research. Watching the videos afterwards with the researcher has been instructive for the parties. It has helped understand how one’s own phrasings have sounded to the other person and possibly affected them.

“The participants have said that it was the very point I wanted to make, but I shouldn’t have said it in that way and with such an angry tone.”

Kykyri has also studied interaction in work teams’ online meetings. Online meetings can also be successful if a few basic things are in order.

“The feeling of presence in an online meeting can be facilitated by keeping the cameras on, showing that we are listening, and verbalising how we feel about the issues at hand,” Kykyri summarises.

Tiedeilta-event talks about the connection between education and interaction

Virpi-Liisa Kykyri is one of the experts in  the panel discussion during the Science Evening on 16 May, which deals with education and skills required today’s society.

Good interaction skills and psychological well-being skills are at the heart of a well-educated country, Kykyri says.

“Although the development of interaction skills is something that everybody should contribute to, there is a potential risk that people do not actually see it as anybody’s concern or responsibility. I highlight the role of educated society, science and universities, schools and other educational institutions in providing the necessary resources, support and forums.”

Kykyri emphasises researchers’ responsibility in the dissemination of knowledge since they know a lot about how interaction can create well-being in families and other communities.

Great responsibility is also laid on leaders and managers at the workplace, teachers at school and parents at home.

“They have a great responsibility for providing possibilities for the development of interaction,” Kykyri says.

“Listening and discussing are parental skills, but similarly they also belong to good management and skilful teaching. Every good teacher already has the skill to teach interaction skills, and it can be included in the curricula for all subjects.”

“Many institutions can provide a forum for us to hear and meet one another and thus get a chance to be influenced by each other’s viewpoints.”

Virpi-Liisa Kykyri is working at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä. She is an associate professor of psychology, docent of clinical psychology research with a focus on interaction research, and a psychologist specialised in work and organisations. She also holds a professional teacher qualification. Kykyri’s research at the BC-Well profiling area focuses on the basic processes underlying psychological well-being interventions and behavioural changes. She leads the Relational Mind research team as well as the PhinGAIN project investigating the supervision of remote work, which is a joint project of the universities of Jyväskylä and Oulu.


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