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Communication 2.0:  Communicating Effectively with Technology

Chuck Doran and Stephen Frenkel

With AOL Instant Messenger announcing that it is shutting down after twenty years and What’s App hitting north of 1 billion users this year, it seems that our options for communicating through technology ebb and grow every day.

And it’s for the better, right? With just the click of a button – or a tap on a smartphone screen, we have the world at our fingertips. Just a short time ago our ancestors communicated via fax, courier and (gasp!) snail mail. Now, we have email, in-office IM systems, texting, Skype, video-chat, and a variety of ever-evolving apps. Communication has become so much more efficient.

Or has it?

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While there are many benefits to our increased ability to communicate quickly via technology, there are also downsides to consider. How many people have clicked “send” on a email, only to regret it later? Or spent far too long trying to interpret the tone of an email, convinced that the period at the end of the sentence indicates anger or unhappiness? Received the wrong message from a quickly sent text?

We aren’t Luddites – technology offers efficiency and opportunities to improve communication, and the fear of a platform’s downsides shouldn’t keep you from utilizing it. With some understanding of why these problems exist and what you can do to address them, you can increase successful communication utilizing new technologies.

First, studies have shown that a substantial amount of communication is non-verbal. When you communicate through technology, you may be considerably limiting the amount of information you send or receive. Sarcasm, intonation and other nuance fall by the wayside when words are communicated on the screen.

Take, for example, the following sentence. Think for just a moment of all the various ways this message can be interpreted depending on where the emphasis is placed:

“I didn’t tell Sarah you were being difficult.”

Did someone else tell Sarah you were being difficult? Did I tell someone else but not Sarah? Did I tell Sarah something, but not that you were being difficult? My guess is that you came up with additional variations. It’s amazing how many ways we can interpret one simple sentence. Imagine the possibilities in a more complex message.

The next time an email comes across your desk that makes you react emotionally, consider that you may be misinterpreting the message or may not have all the relevant information. Equally important, the next time you send a message, consider that it may be interpreted in multiple ways. The fact that you know how you intend for your message to be received biases you even more to believe that’s the way your message will be read.

Second, in our work as mediators and negotiation trainers, we’re often made aware of the false assumptions people make in both simple and complex conversations. As human beings, we’re hardwired to make assumptions, which serve as shortcuts for social interaction; otherwise, we’d have to start from scratch in every scenario. But certain assumptions get in the way of effective communication. We have to be aware that we’re making an assumption about a person or situation, especially when information and communication are limited (as in email or other electronic modes of communication). It’s important to take extra time to confirm that your assumptions are correct before responding. Doing so will enable you to move forward with confidence or correct your false assumptions prior to taking an action you might regret later.

Finally, consider the lasting permanence of having your words captured forever in writing. Granted, you might be able to debate whether the message the reader received was what you intended, and your words will exist in permanence. In addition, not only can they be misinterpreted by the individual the message was intended for, emails can also be forwarded to a much wider audience. This impact is exacerbated when we respond in public forums. Remember – the words you write are often directly linked to your name, website, and become part of your online identity. These words often lay the foundation for your reputation long before you can shape it yourself.

Given the dangers of communication through technology, consider the following:

  • Don’t default to one mode over another, but strategically choose your medium based on the situation. Convening a meeting or relaying numbers and “facts”? Email may be appropriate. Trying to resolve a dispute or misunderstanding? Increase the level of communication through more interaction – pick up the phone or request a meeting in person.
  • Train yourself to pause or even sleep on an emotionally charged email that you’ve written prior to sending. Consider that you may not have all the information or that you may be misinterpreting the message they intended to send. Consider also that what you’ve written may reach a wider audience than intended. When writing, assume you have no control over who sees your words. Once you’ve taken some time between reacting and sending, you may be able to revisit your email or post and alter it to strengthen both the message and your reputation.

In the face of new tools and technology, we must reevaluate how we operate to account for the benefits as well as the dangers. Navigating new means of business and social interaction can take time. Fortunately, there are best practices that we can follow and develop. What has worked for you?

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Want to improve your communication skills and learn to negotiate more effectively? Contact Chuck Doran at 627-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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