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Trying to Build Relationships as an Online Student? Learn the ABC Method

ABC method to building relationships

If you’re leading a meeting with a group of people, how can you tell that they are engaged in what you’re saying? What do you look for to ensure they’re on board with your recommendations? If someone is not aligned with your proposed plan of action, what could they do to demonstrate this?

The answers to these questions are simple. We perceive engagement and consent when people nod their heads, lean forward or genuinely smile when people speak. If someone shakes their head from side to side, crosses their arms over their chest or focuses on something else in the room, we perceive disengagement or disagreement.

So how can you read these feelings when you’re not in a room with the people with whom you’re communicating?

Typically, we can tell if someone is paying attention to what we are saying by looking at their nonverbal cues to help clarify meaning and intent. For example, when a person makes a statement and then smiles afterward, you can see that they were making a joke.

When the majority of your interactions take place online, however, you need to reduce your reliance on visual nonverbal cues in making sure your message is getting across in the right way. One helpful approach is the “ABC Method”:

  1. Ask for clarification. One of the common pitfalls of nonverbal communication is related to the “email chain.” Have you ever messaged someone back and forth on the same email thread for so long that you forgot what the original request was? This type of communication is detrimental to building relationships in a virtual setting. A good rule of thumb is if you have to email someone more than three times to clarify your understanding of a request, it is best to pick up the phone and give them a call.
  2. Be careful when formatting your messaging. Another good rule of thumb to read emails and other written communication out loud before sending. Formatting elements (bold, italic, underline) and punctuation and sentence case used for emphasis (exclamation points, capital letters), as well as slang, should be used sparingly.
  3. Cut the sarcasm. If you’re trying to establish a relationship with someone new, they may not understand your version of humor versus sarcasm. You could be making a lighthearted joke that someone else takes seriously and unintentionally offend that person. According to Dr. Clifford Lazarus, licensed psychologist and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute, sarcasm is hostility disguised as humor1. Sarcastic statements are expressed in a cutting manner; witty remarks are delivered with undisguised and harmless humor. Depending on the audience, it is not always easy to distinguish wit from sarcasm. If your intent is not to hurt someone else, it is better to err on the side of caution and steer clear of sarcasm.

Here is a scenario you can use to apply the ABC Method in a real-world setting:

Tracy and Tara are both members of a group project. Tracy needs the research that Tara is supposed to collect to complete her part of the project. Tracy emails Tara asking for a statistic from the research that she can use for the project. Tara responds with the following message:


I am FAR too busy this week to help you. Why don’t you try looking it up on your own? After all, the professor thinks you are soooo smart anyway. Just kidding, I will totes send it to you when I’m finished with the research.


Tracy is very upset by Tara’s response. How could Tara have managed this relationship better?

  1. Ask Tracy if she needed the statistic immediately or whether she could wait a few days
  2. Eliminate the slang (“soooo”, “totes”, “ciao”) and remove “FAR” from the response
  3. Keep the response professional and less sarcastic
  4. All of the above

The answer is “D.” If Tara asked for clarification about the timeline in which Tracy needed the statistic, eliminated the slang and kept the response professional, Tracy probably would not be upset and questioning her likelihood of working with Tara on a project in the future. Here’s a better way to frame the response:


I have not had a chance to complete all of the research yet, so would you be willing to wait a couple of days for this statistic? I would greatly appreciate it.

Thank you,

Interested in more tips on navigating the online student experience? Read our College Success blog.

1. Lazarus, Ph.D., Clifford N. “Think Sarcasm is Funny? Think Again.” Retrieved from (Visited 12/9/16)