Work is about people. Projects are about people. The way we get most things done in an organizational context is through people. We need to negotiate, persuade, advocate, argue, defend, support, encourage, discourage, explain, justify and rationalize. We also at times need to obfuscate, deflect, defer and deescalate. These are not simple actions. They require work, effort, finesse, judgement, nuance and political acumen.
But here’s the challenge. All of that encompasses communication. And how we communicate has… evolved. The dominant means of interaction in a workplace environment is email. Text messages are astonishingly popular. And now we have Slack and its ilk. All of it text, all of it mediated by computer, and all of it vastly open to interpretation—and misinterpretation.
We know this, of course. Every one of us has—at some point—had an email been misunderstood. Badly. If we’re honest, this has happened many more times than once, often with the painful consequence of a completely disproportionate, over-the-top response landing in our inbox. And the follow-on requirement of walking back misinterpretations and managing relations back to something like base, normal human functioning.
Why do we do this? In a lot of instances, it’s a perception of efficiency. Sending an email feels faster than a long, involved dialogue. Sometimes that’s wishful thinking. We think that we won’t be misunderstood, and so we can get away with dashing off a missive rather than diving into a more comprehensive conversation. What all of that boils down to is a belief that “written=fast; personal=slow.” And that would be a mistake.
The number of times that I have been misinterpreted or misunderstood in email defies counting. What I’m pleased to report is that the majority of those instances are in the distant past. I have far fewer misunderstandings today. This is not a product of becoming a better writer. It’s largely attributable to the fact that I send a lot fewer emails than I used to.
That’s not to say that written communication doesn’t have value. I do send a lot of email. But what I send tends to be clear, direct and not particularly open to ambiguity or misinterpretation. Where email—or text—shines is when there are clear, factual, yes-or-no questions to be addressed. Can you attend this meeting? Did we hear back from the vendor? Will the sponsor be in the office tomorrow? Should we plan a follow up conversation? Every single one of these questions is amenable to a response by email.
The larger challenge is that every single one of those questions frequently leads to other, more complex questions. When we move past whether we heard from the vendor, and we instead want to understand whether the vendor still feels that the timeline and scope of their commitment is reasonable, things get complicated. When we know the sponsor will be in, but we don’t know if they are comfortable with the contents of the status report being presented at the steering committee, there is the potential for messy.
In other words, black-and-white questions are straightforward and easy to answer. And ambiguous, complex and fuzzy questions—prone as they are to shades of grey—are not.
Now, I do get emails about fuzzy, contextual and uncertain questions all the time. In fact, one of my clients is famous for sending them on an all-too-regular basis. And my response to those emails is entirely consistent: I pick up the phone and give them a call.
This isn’t to say that I don’t mind the emails. One of my particular foibles as a human being is that I really, really hate voicemail. I don’t like people calling me and not reaching me. Not because I think I should be always on and available, but because now I have to pick up the phone, call my voicemail, listen to the message in real time, take notes, delete the message, hang up and then make another call.
Far more preferable is having the email. I know in advance the question that my client is asking. I have a reasonable understanding of their inclination and preferred approach. And I have a reasonable period of time to reflect and contemplate before I respond. I can get an understanding of all of this by glancing at my phone or email client, even if I’m currently busy with other commitments. All of which, in my view, is incredibly helpful. But my response in turn is rarely in written form.
In fact, to a certain extent I allow for the possibility that my client KNOWS I’m going to pick up the phone and call them. They tend to be available and willing to discuss whatever the issue at hand happens to actually be. And this is good, in large part because in most instances the right answer depends. It is contextual. There are considerations and implications that need to be weighed and assessed before arriving at an answer.
A case in point: last week, I got an email letting me know that two more attendees for a critical workshop I was facilitating for them had cancelled. That brought the total to five, out of an audience of twenty. Approaching critical mass. I could have simply accepted that as information. I could have emailed back a quick, “Thanks for letting me know.” Instead, I picked up the phone.
Now, why did I do that? Isn’t this exactly the sort of information is good for: the presentation and communication of straightforward, factual information? Yes it is. And letting me know the numbers in an email was straight-up reasonable. The complexity came in what happened next.
Part of the reason I called was about who was going to be missing. I now had two key voices—important voices, who could move support for what we were doing one way or another—not attending the meeting. And even the possibility of losing one more person would bring the total attendance into question as sufficient to accomplish what was required out of the workshop. So the conversation revolved around whether or not we were going to go ahead. And that was something that required consideration and exploration.
It wasn’t a workshop that I wanted to cancel. We had been trying to get it booked at this point for six months. Cancelling would likely shift the schedule out another two or three months. This was an important conversation. A lot of work around a planned organizational change hinged on it happening. And a lot of the success of that change hinged on it happening well. This meant we needed the right people in the room (and preferably all the people in the room).
A simple, one line, factual email turned into three phone conversations over a period of an afternoon, that involved a total of about 45 minutes of my time. You might look at that as inefficient and time consuming. I look on it as the most important thing I did with that afternoon (apart from getting fitted with new glasses; I really, really need a new prescription). Because we got to the right decision—not going ahead—for the right reason.
If I hadn’t called, we would probably have ploughed through, done the workshop, and then needed to do a follow-up workshop once the key missing voices were available. That would have been unfair, unreasonable and helpful to no one.
It’s easy to hide behind email. It lets us avoid many of the difficult conversations that we might otherwise be having. Or to phrase that another way, it allows us to avoid many of the difficult yet extremely important conversations that we should be having. And email—or worse, Slack—is not a place to be diving into those discussions. There’s too much at stake, and too much open to misinterpretation.
There’s a widely quoted statistic about how much various different means of conveying a message shape understanding. It comes from Albert Mehrabian’s book Silent Messages, and its become somewhat controversial in large part because its meaning has been largely misunderstood. Research by Mehrabian demonstrated that our ability to communicate is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% words.
If we were to take that at face value, mime would be a more important communication tool than email. We could also argue that using email robs us of 93% of our ability to communicate. What’s most important—and misunderstood—is that this isn’t saying 93% of our communication ability is non-verbal; that words don’t matter. Words matter a great deal. But what Mehrabian’s statistics influence is how well the meaning of our message is interpreted by others.
In other words, if our audience perceived a disconnect between our words, our tone of voice and our body language, it’s body language that is going to be most telling. If we are saying verbally that we are really excited about an upcoming opportunity, and our body language and tone of voice express otherwise, then we’re going to come across as insincere at best, and as a liar at worst.
And that’s why email is so difficult a communication tool. When we try to wade into complex issues, all we have are words. And yet our audience still interprets body language and tone of voice. But rather than it being our body language and tone of voice, what they instead imagine is theirs. If they were to use those words, that way, what would their tone of voice be? What would be their emotional intent? What meaning would they be trying to convey? Their filter colours our words, and misunderstanding erupts.
Picking up the phone—or even better, meeting face-to-face—helps to manage some of this. It lets us work through details, explore options and test outcomes in a way that is really hard to do in written form (without being very, very careful, and most likely extremely precise and detailed). And even when we think we’re detailed and precise, there is a risk that someone else is going to interpret differently. Conversation might feel longer, but it’s often the shortest and most direct path to the outcome and agreement that we need.
So the next time you get an email, take the time to evaluate what’s being asked and what it will take to answer. Is your immediate reaction, “it depends?” Is there a multi-part answer? Is there a multi-part set of questions that need to be explored in order to get to an answer? Do you need to know more about what is being asked, or why, or the outcome that is attempting to be realized? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”—or even “maybe”—then step away from the keyboard. Don’t hit reply. Don’t even compose a response in your head.
Pick up the damn phone instead.