Communication 2.0: The Perils of Communicating Through Technology

Think of all the ways our lives have been made easier and more efficient with technology.  With just the click of a button (or a mouse), we have the world at our fingertips.  Communication alone has changed drastically over the past decade (for the better, right?).  Besides face-to-face meetings and phone calls, we have email, instant messaging (IM), text messaging, eNewsletters, blogs, list-servs, online forums and threads, virtual reality, webcasts and webinars (and more that I’m not aware of, I’m sure) that enable us to keep in touch.  Just a short time ago our primitive ancestors communicated via fax, courier and (gasp!) snail mail.  Life really has gotten easier.

Or has it?

While most of us tend to focus on the benefits of the instant communication world we live in, few take into account the downsides of these new modes of communication.  Have you or someone you know ever hit the “send” button, only to regret it later?  Misinterpreted someone’s email or post because you didn’t fully understand their intentions or the background?  Received an email in all caps and wondered why you were being yelled at?

These are only a few of the new perils of communication we all face in the age of technology.  But fear not (or fear less), with some understanding of why these perils exist and what you can do to address them, you may be able to limit the downsides.

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 and 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 my work as a negotiation consultant and trainer, I’m made aware only too often of the false assumptions people make in both simple and complex conversations.  These false assumptions affect how we look at and react to various circumstances.  As human beings, we’re hardwired to make these assumptions, which serve as shortcuts for social interaction; otherwise, we’d have to start from scratch in every scenario.  But these assumptions can also get in the way of effective communication.  We have to be aware that we’re making them, especially when information and communication are limited, as in email or other electronic modes of communication.  It’s important to take some 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’ll later regret.

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 (to my point above), but 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, social networking page, etc.  These words often lay the foundation for your reputation long before you can shape it yourself.

Given this insight to the dangers of communication through technology, what are we to do?  Abandon them?  That would be impossible.  Instead, consider the following points of advice:

First and foremost, 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.

Second, 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 accordingly.

In the face of new tools and technology, we must often 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 and experience.  Fortunately, there are others blazing a path forward for the rest of us.  It’s important to learn from them and to recall that these tools at our disposal are relatively new – like all new tools and inventions, it’ll take us some time to understand all of the long-term implications and to find ways to effectively work within or around them.

Stephen Frenkel is the Director of Negotiation Programs at MWI, a negotiation training and consulting firm based in Boston, Massachusetts.  Stephen can be reached at sfrenkel@mwi.org or at 800-348-4888 x24.  More information about MWI can be found at www.mwi.org/negotiation.

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