by David Micah Kaufman
With e-mail, sometimes even simple responses can be the most complex to decipher the sender’s true feelings. My personal favorite is the very simple, “Sure.” Does that mean, “Sure, I am really excited to send over the information and will do it right away,” “Sure, I loathe you and will send the information only after I’ve finished my marathon game of Angry Birds,” or “Sure, I agree that I should send you the material, but I don’t know where it is and I am not motivated to find it”?
If you are texting, besides the ambiguous “Sure,” there are many other things that can cause confusion, including errors caused by big thumbs, autocorrect, or unfinished thoughts. These are the challenges of electronic communication. The answer may be to take it offline―pick up the phone, walk down the hall, or travel to visit the person.
Why is electronic communication so difficult sometimes? It is one-dimensional communication. All you have to figure out what the other guy is saying are the words. Even long and well-written e-mails can be misunderstood because you are simply going by the words on the screen. Human communication is based on many more complex, nonverbal clues.
Patti Wood, a communications consultant, describes these cues as “all the communications between people that do not have a direct verbal translation. Nonverbal cues are all body movements, body orientation, nuances of the voice (called Paralanguage), facial expressions, details of dress, and choice and movement of objects that communicate.”
Managing those cues can be very important in business communication and can be the difference to a successful employee or supervisor. According to Wood, “because nonverbal cues are sent primarily from the “emotional brain’ rather than the neo cortex they create more honest and revealing messages. Nonverbal cues can help business people determine others’ motivations and analyze business interactions with much more richness, depth, and insight than can come from simply relying on spoken or printed words.”
Technology and business author/blogger Anthony Tjan presents the issue on the basis of emotional intelligence (EQ). “It is hard to get the EQ right in email. The biggest drawback and danger with email is that the tone and context are easy to misread. In a live conversation, how one says something, with modulations and intonations, is as important as what they are saying. With email it is hard to get the feelings behind the words.”
Spectrum of communication
Most people engage in the whole spectrum of communication: text, e-mail, phone (including voicemail), video/Skype/teleconference, and face-to- face. Each type uses a varying degree of cues: texts use the least cues and face-to-face communication uses the most cues. Unfortunately, electronic communications are primarily in the “less cues” part of the spectrum, yet many workers operate only in this low end of the spectrum.
That’s understandable, as most people are more secure in impersonal communications. Let’s face it, in a difficult situation, it is so much easier to send a text than have a face-to-face conversation. However, in difficult situations, face-to-face discussions really work best.
One of the biggest challenges in effective communications is matching the form of communication with the situation. Some situations simply demand a form of communication that requires more of the cues discussed above, including difficult conversations (e.g., delivering bad news), complex discussions, or interactions that require a good degree of interactive problem solving. In addition, if using a less robust form of communication is not working (more than three back-and-forth e-mails, for example) workers need to increase the amount of cues and make a phone call or arrange a face-to-face.
Technology helps speed up communication; however, some of these speedy forms of messaging can be problematic if the right amount of cues are not available to make sure each party is truly being heard.
David Micah Kaufman is the founder of BIGGER PIES—a boutique professional services consulting firm in San Francisco—and a regular contributor to HR Insight. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 272 – 8115.