Email Miscommunication

(In)effective (Mis)communication

The age of electronic communication has brought with it some incredible advances.  Email, text messaging, BBM, instant messaging, Tweets, Likes, and +1’s are firmly embedded as mechanisms we use every day to communicate with each other both one on one and socially to an audience. With each of these advances though we see a progression toward disintermediation of the message and the communication as the “bits” of information we communicate become shorter and shorter.

It is hard enough to try to capture the essence of a message in written form without artificial limits like the 140 character SMS or Twitter limit (and even harder to understand the reasons someone “Likes” or “+1s” something).

While much has been written on the limitations of understanding of email or text communication and the power of voice to voice or face to face communications, I’ve had a couple of experiences in the past couple of months that make it obvious to me that not everyone has heard the message.

We all have a tendency to read personal or social written communication with a “lens” or “internal voice” overlayed on the message.  Because we can’t actually hear the person we are “talking” to, we apply our own interpretation of tone and inflection to the message to personalize it.  The problem is that most often that “internal voice” carries with it the inflection of how we are currently feeling which can give the message a more negative (or positive) meaning than it was intended to have.

Consider the following.  Read each message below emphasizing the word in bold when you do:

  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.
  • I am very disappointed in this outcome.

So which of those meanings and perceived intentions was the “correct” one – the one intended by the author of the message?  Your guess is as good as mine.

The problem compounds itself when we assume we understand the intention and quickly hit the Reply button (or even worse – Reply All).  We blast out our own reaction to message as we perceived it which in turn can be equally misunderstood.  Too often a spiral of ineffective communication, hard feelings, and wasted time ensues.

So what should we do when we feel the hair on the back of our neck rising when we read a message like this?  Two easy steps can reduce or eliminate the churn and hard feelings:

  1. Stop, breathe, and re-read the message.
    Take a deep breath, be conscious of your own emotional state, and re-read the message.  You may quickly find that what upset you in the first place could be interpreted in several ways (and some of your own self-talk that you inserted into the message may disappear).  Try to read objectively and don’t “read into” the message or “read between the lines”.  That which is unwritten is in your own head, don’t attribute those words or feelings to the author.
  2. Pick up the phone or get up and walk over to the author to talk in person.
    If you are physically located close to the author, get up and go see them.  Failing that, dial the number and get them on the phone to talk so you can hear their voice (and they can hear yours).  The power of body language and voice tone is incredible, and even if the message you hear is the same as you perceived it, you’ll be amazed at how much less upset it makes you when you hear the message and are able to have a one-on-one conversation about it.

Finally, just because you have now become a better message receiver doesn’t mean you can ignore your responsibilities as a sender.  When you have a difficult message to communicate, choose your communication medium carefully and whenever possible revert back to that ancient medium we call face-to-face communication.  You might save a couple minutes up front by crafting a quick email, but the time and effort you’ll spend cleaning it up later far outweighs any investment of time it would take up front to deliver the message directly and in person.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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