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Digital (mis)communication

by Benjamin Schmidt | April 4, 2020

 

A lot of people are currently being thrust into the murky waters of communicating purely via different apps. It’s dangerous. I’m Australian, and to me, the perfect analogy would be diving head-first into a muddy river on a scorcher of a day. You don’t know how deep the water is, if there are gigantic rocks to thump your noggin on, submerged branches to snag yourself on, or if there might even be a slumbering saltie waiting for a snack. You’ve got to know the risks, and when you do, you can still take a dip and cool off, but you can do so in a controlled manner and keep everything, yourself included, out of the danger zone.

Engagement Blog

We take so much for granted when it comes to communication. We don’t even realize how much we take in and process during a conversation. Sure, we know we’re listening to words. But we hear tone, we watch facial expression and body language, and we even read into the context of where we are, the situation, who’s nearby, and what time it is.  

 

Consider: It’s 9.00 PM, there’s only you and two others in the office, and your manager walks up, exasperated look in her eye, and says ‘What are you doing?’ She’s telling you to go home. Or, it’s 8.20 AM on a busy Monday morning, you’re standing by the coffee machine with five others, and she says the same thing. She’s probably telling you to get to your desk and quit the chatting. 

 

But now, consider this: You’re a remote worker. Your manager works in different time zone to you. For you, it’s 10.00 PM, and you receive a message on your internal communications platform: ‘what are u doing?’ How do you interpret this?? What time is it on her end? What is she referring to? Is she angry? Is she just checking in and being kind? Has she seen something you’ve done earlier and thinks you’re still on that task? It’s a minefield. A real digital minefield.

In my role as Engagement Lead, I offer anyone and everyone in our organization the opportunity to reach out for a ten-minute confidential chat. And I mean anyone. Why? Because when you’re working online, there are no water-cooler moments to blow off steam after an intense interaction with a colleague. There are no co-workers sitting nearby for you to conference with about the latest bizarre email you received with unclear instructions. There are no serendipitous bump-ins when on a break where you can discuss the last meeting and the parts you didn’t quite follow.

You have to create them, or at the very least create a space for these interactions to take placeWe need to create what’s missing for the benefit of everyone. But when you flip this and apply it to communication, this artificial creation is the opposite of what you need. When you communicate via text, you can read that text in any tone of voice your mind puts the words in. This is dangerous. When you communicate purely digitally, how do you read someone’s facial expressions? You don’t, you invent them in your mind. This is dangerous.

Half of the ten-minute chats I have with people normally revolve around this very topic. Someone has been in a (text) conversation and have walked away feeling as though their manager hates them, that their job now hangs in the balance. They call me up (video call, always) to vent and blow off some steam. Normally they end up showing me the messages, and I read them aloud in a different tone. At this point, I can read the surprise on that person’s face. They’ve been so caught up in interpreting those messages through their own lens that they are blown away when they realize it can be seen differently.

Sometimes in an organization, there are policies that confuse you or you find hard to understand. But here at 5CA, there is one policy that I love. Literally love, no exaggeration. I throw myself 110% behind it, stand by it, insist on it. It’s our video call policy – that if ever you call someone, it has to be a video call. If I had one criticism of this policy, it’s that I wish it were stronger, that all communication had to be done on video call (though I do concede that this would be entirely impractical). 

A video call is not the same as face-to-face interaction, but it’s a pretty excellent substitute. You see a real human being with all of their facial expressions, all of the tonality in their voice, all of their personality. It humanizes the interaction, removes a whole lot of room for misinterpretation, and creates a real relationship.

But a video call is not always practical, so here are a couple of tips to keep in mind: 

  • Don’t read text through the prism of your mood. Put on a funny voice and read it again, does the meaning change? Try a weird accent, or saying it really slowly – the trick here is to stop your voice from reading it, and help your mind to open itself to other interpretations.  
  • If something gets you worked up, walk away and come back to it in ten minutes and try reading it again. Don’t let the heat of the moment overwhelm the rational part of your brain.  
  • Try not to read into things too much or infer too much from missing information. If it’s not spelled out, don’t imagine it and fill in the blanks yourself – ask for clarification instead.  
  • Allow yourself to err on the side of friendliness. If you’re not sure of the tone, just imagine it as friendly or helpful – chances are that’s how it was intended.  
  • And, of course, wherever you can – video call people! Especially if you feel communication is going awry, intervene quickly and set it back on the right track. At the end of the day, we’re social creatures, so you’re fulfilling a human need for yourself and for everyone you communicate with. As an added bonus, you’ll also save time! Happiness and productivity in one action – it’s a win-win.  

Habits form quickly. The key to becoming a master at communicating in a digital age is locking yourself into good habits as soon as you can. If you can take those tips and make them your commandments, then “mate – you’ll be right as rain”.

Benjamin Schmidt

Ben works as Engagement and Communications Lead from our Utrecht office, a far cry from the sunny beaches of his native Western Australia, but he makes up for it with a frustratingly sunny disposition. When not busy engaging, he disengages by exploring Europe and binge-watching scifi.