Thursday, November 1, 2007

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

I was doing a little research about how best to communicate in this day and age. Computers and email have certainly revolutionized the way we deal with one another, but caveat emptor! There are pitfalls. Several months ago, the topic came up with our friends Kim and Steve, and Steve (a teacher) said that the best way to communicate is face-to-face, because that way you get all the nuances of tone and body language. The second best way is by phone--you don't get the body language, but you still get the tone, and it's "real time." The worst way is by email, because all that you have there are words, and those can be taken in any way the recipient wishes to take them. I thought that was so true, and we've all had incidents at work where our words were misconstrued. Email is so immediate, so removed, and sometimes, so anonymous, that it can be a disaster waiting to happen. I found some interesting stuff today:

Email communication IS different

To understand how electronic mail is different than ANY other medium we need to look at a little bit of painless communication theory. Before we do, a comment on some models of communication you may have come across in the past in training sessions or other books. Many of the models used in training are based on the "telegraphic model". The telegraphic model suggests that there is a sender and a receiver for any given message, and they switch positions in turn. So the simplified model looks like this:

Person A-------->Person B------->Person A--------->Person B

The sender sends a message which arrives at the receiver, who figures out what it means, and then in turn becomes the sender while the other becomes the receiver. This model, commonly applied to all communication is mostly incorrect. It applies to telegrams and telegraphs, but not to all forms of communication

Let's fix it so it reflects what really happens with face-to-face communication. In face-to-face communication, communication is not sequential. When two people talk in person, both parties are sending and receiving information at the exact same time. For example,
when one person is talking, the other may be not talking but through the use of non-verbals (facial expression or nodding) send messages of approval or disapproval WHILE the person is talking. So face-to-face communication involves both parties being sender and receiver at the same time. It looks like this:

Person A<------------------>Person B

This allows for what we call simultaneous mutual influence. Each person's behaviour influences the other's reactions on the fly, in real time. It allows for mid-course corrections if both parties are sensitive to the messages sent by the other person and willing to be influenced by them. Different communication mediums [sic] differ in terms of how close they are to face-to-face real time communication and influence or how close they are to the telegraphic model where only one person sends at a time and influence goes one way, then switches to the other.

Telephone conversations are closer to face-to-face interactions, but have less mutual simultaneous influence. Letter writing is much closer to (or perhaps identical to) the telegraphic model. Electronic communication (via e-mail) is telegraphic and sequential. You send a message to a colleague, wait for a response, and then respond to that. The critical point here as it relates to e-mail is that the closer a medium is to telegraphic communication, the more likely it is to end up creating conflict, and the more difficult it is to resolve conflict using that medium. Misunderstandings cannot be clarified or fixed in real time, for example.

Email DOES create unnecessary conflict

If you have any experience on the Internet or using your company's internal email system, you probably realize that there is a great deal of very poor confrontational communication that occurs in the electronic medium. Why is that the case? E-mail is different from any other telegraphic medium because of the speed and lack of cost associated with it. It FEELS like face to face conversation and people write email very informally, almost as if they are sitting next to the other person, talking face-to-face. People don't treat e-mail like formal letter writing. In formal letter writing (another telegraphic medium) people will write, edit, reread and ponder over the communication, particularly if it is important. The result of a well-crafted letter in business should be a clear document, well thought out, that expresses the content and tone of the sender of the letter.

Here's the core issue. Although e-mail is telegraphic communication, people treat it like face-to-face communication, and get into trouble. They dash off notes quickly, don't reread their e-mails before sending them, and presume that their written words will be understood exactly as they intend. What they forget is that it isn't face-to-face communication and is limited in its ability to get the correct tone across without careful crafting and editing of the message. That's why there is a very high level of miscommunication related to electronic communication.

We need to understand that e-mail is most like letter-writing, despite the appearance of it being like face-to-face. It may be a "fast-food world" edition of letter-writing but letter-writing it is. We need to treat it accordingly in the workplace or risk miscommunicating and creating unnecessary conflict.

excerpt from Robert Bacal's book, Conflict Prevention In the Workplace - Using Cooperative Communication.

I know that was quite long, but I really didn't want to edit out too much of it, because I think it's all pertinent. I like what he wrote about how email FEELS like face-to-face, but it most certainly isn't. I've had people tell me that reading my letters (back in the old days, when I handwrote actual letters!), emails, or most recently my blog, is like talking to me. I'm glad to hear that, because I must have a way of expressing myself fairly well in what I write. I know that's not always the case, but I hope I succeed the majority of the time. One problem I've found with email is that sometimes the recipient has a certain mindset that predisposes them to take your words in a particular way. If they are infatuated with you, your every word will be interpreted as sweet and loving. If they are angry with you, your words will be seen as confrontational, no matter how you intended them to be.

God knows I loves me my email, but it is an imperfect medium that will never take the place of personal exchanges.


fisherkristina said...

This was an excellent entry.  Thanks so much for taking the time to post it.  It really made me think.  

It reminded me of something I once read and that was this.:  We often fire off emails w/o thinking them through, as though they are going to be read by the reader and quickly deleted.  But they may not be.  Always write each email as though you wouldn't mind if the receiver decided not to dispose of it, after all emails leave a permanent record of you...

Having said that, I can't imagine the world w/o emails, can you???  I still remember my very first one, LOL!  It was at work!

Krissy :)

luvrte66 said...

Thanks, Krissy! And no, I wouldn't want to go back to the days before email, either!

monponsett said...

I get in a lot of trouble with emails because I am unable to provide tone...even with italics or boldface.