Every year our technology for communication advances, but communication remains a challenge. In fact, the stress that comes from inadequate communication seems to be rising. It’s hard to blame technology when we’re the ones who create and operate the technology, and yet it’s hard to blame humanity when a lot of our communication is successful. It raises 3 questions:
- Has the volume of our communication become more than we can handle?
- Has our need for communication eroded our self-sufficiency?
- Should we be more intentional about the way we balance non-verbal technological communication with verbal or face-to-face communication?
Let’s look behind door #3.
We sometimes approach communication as though its most important function is to deliver information, but there are two other reasons for communication that are more important. One is to achieve mutual understanding, and the other is to achieve resolution. Non-verbal technology often works pretty well for delivering information. But all kinds of misunderstandings and hard feelings can result when we use technology as a tool for avoidance disguised as efficiency.
Any communication that involves mutual understanding – such as gaining agreement, consensus or commitment – should be face to face or at least voice to voice. The same is true for communication that involves deciding next steps or achieving resolution. This sounds obvious, and yet we continue to drift farther away from interactive personal communication, even as we acknowledge the increase in miscommunication, misunderstanding, mistakes and hurt feelings that result from email and texting.
So consider this as a rule of thumb: Rely on personal contact – face to face or verbal – for situations that involve understanding, resolution or commitment. We already know the reasons why this is true:
Face to face communication (or by phone) allows us to share opinions in the moment, get the clarification we need, reword something that doesn’t have the impact we hoped for, let ideas evolve through collaboration, see facial expressions and body language, hear voice tones, fix misunderstandings on the spot, repair hurt feelings. If none of these benefits is needed – if you are simply conveying information where there is no risk of confusion – then send an email.
Another way to improve the quality of communication is to ask the questions we need answered. This is another one that sounds obvious, yet it’s another one we’re drifting away from. The grievance of poor communication grows because we don’t get the information, answers, explanations and decisions we need, but we also haven’t asked the questions. Good communication requires initiative, but that’s a contribution that everyone can make.