9 Ways to Improve Online Communication

October 28, 2012

Are you becoming a digital junkie? Between e-mail, texting, or social networking, the nature of communication is becoming ever more digital and less verbal. With the brevity and acronyms used in Twitter messages, we may be heading back toward some form of cave drawings to communicate. At least if we are going to be communicating online all the time, we should all do it as skillfully at it as possible.

The rules for communicating efficiently and effectively online are not complex; unfortunately many people do not remember to use the rules on a daily basis. Here are nine specific points that can improve your communication online:

1. Understand online text is different from conversation – When we use the old fashioned method of communicating (with the mouth and ears) we have the opportunity to modify everything we say, the pace, the tone, the content, the inflection, everything, based on the visual feedback we are getting real time from the other person. Instantaneous feedback is not in play with digital communication, so the potential to make corrections and stay out of trouble is just not there.

2. Use the right mode of communication – For many applications, a digital note may be the expedient way to communicate, but it may well not be the best way. Consider whether having a face-to-face discussion or a phone call might be the more efficient route in the long run. Having your cell phone or ipad in your hand is not a reason to use the wrong mode of communication for important notes.

3. Get the right tone at the start – In any message, even a tweet, you need to set the tone at the very start so the other person understands your frame of reference. If not, the message can be read in a way that is totally opposite to your intention. With longer e-mail messages, this is a critical element.

4. Don’t play one upmanship – Escalating e-mails in an organizational context are familiar long strings of increasing rancor and expanding distribution. I call these diatribes “e-grenade battles.” The antidote here is to refrain from taking the bait. Simply do not reply in kind to a message that gets under your skin. Instead, pick up the phone or walk down the hall to clear up any misunderstanding.

5. Keep the content brief – Twitter helps us in that regard, but the side effect is that sometimes the true intent can be lost in the extreme brevity. With social networking and e-mail, less is more, because people do not take the time to wade through mountains of text to get the meat.

6. Avoid Absolutes – If I write that you are “always late for meetings,” it is not likely an accurate statement. “You never call me,” is usually proven to be incorrect. Even if an absolute word is technically correct, it is an accusatory term that sets up a negative vibe in the mind of the reader who will try to prove the writer is incorrect.

7. Read before sending – Depending on the gravity of the message, you should reread it at least twice before sending. With social networking this is also true. Make sure you attempt to put yourself in the place of the reader. Think how the information might be misinterpreted, and make sure you spell things correctly, at least most of the time.

8. Recognize you cannot get them back – Most digital messages are permanent data. They do not atrophy with time like verbal communication does. You can apologize all you want, but the other person can demonstrate that you said this or that. Make sure you write what you mean to communicate. Emails never go away.

9. Understand you lose control of the distribution – Once you push the send button, it is all over. You cannot get the message back or delete it. It is out there for the intended recipient and potentially any other person in the world to view. That includes your harshest critics or worst enemies!

There are numerous other ways to improve digital communication, but if you keep these nine concepts firmly in your mind, you will have a much more fruitful interface with other people online in the long run.


Leading Without Bullying

November 21, 2010

As I was having breakfast today, I was gazing out the window watching some robins chase each other around the back yard. I started thinking of the various animal species and the fact that in every group of animals, a certain amount of bullying behavior goes on. It is a “survival of the fittest” world in the animal kingdom. Maybe that is why we humans often exhibit some form of bullying behavior in order to get our way.

Bullying has become a key concept in our society. We see forms of it in every area from the school yard to Congress, from the boardroom to the barroom. We universally abhor the behavior in school kids, but yet we often see it practiced unchallenged as adults.

We know the incredible destructive nature of bullying because all of us have been bullied at some point in our lives, and we know it does not feel good. We know it leads to suicide in rare cases, especially in children, because they do not know how to cope with the powerless feeling of being bullied. They would simply rather die.

It is also true that each one of us has been guilty of bullying another person at some point. If you wish to deny that, you need to think harder. Some of us have played the role of the bully more than others. Some managers have it down to a fine art. Unfortunately, people in power positions have a greater temptation to use bullying because it is a way to obtain compliance. The problem is that, in organizations, mere compliance is not going to get the job done.

Organizational bullying is not confined to verbal abuse or strong body language. It also occurs when headstrong managers become so fixated on their own agenda that it renders them effectively deaf to the ideas or concerns of others. They become like a steamroller and push their agenda with little regard for what others think. In this area, there is a fine line between being a passionate, driving leader who really believes and advocates for the goal versus one who is willing to hear and consider alternate points of view.

While we are mammals, we have a more developed brain and greater power to reason than lesser species. If we use that power, we should realize that bullying behavior usually leads to the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. It may seem like a convenient expedient, but it does not work well in the long run.

If you are an elk, you are only thinking of the situation at hand and reacting to a threat to your power or position. You are not thinking longer term about relationships and possible future alliances, nor do you care how your behaviors might inspire other elk to perform at their best. The aptitude to plan and care is what separates man from the animal world.

Applying this logic in an organization is pretty simple. Managers who bully their way to get people to do their bidding are actually building up resentment and hostility. While this may produce short term compliance, it works against objectives long term. By taking a kinder approach, managers can achieve more consistent results over the long haul and obtain full cooperation from people rather than simple compliance.

Here are ten tips to reduce the tendency to bully other people:

1. Ask if you would want to be treated this way – Simply apply the Golden Rule.

2. Observe the reaction and body language in other people – If they cower or retreat when you bark out commands, you are coming on too strong.

3. Be sensitive to feedback – It takes courage to listen when someone tells you that you are being a bully. Ask for that feedback, and listen when it is given.

4. Speak more softly and slowly – Yelling at people makes them feel bullied even if that is not your intention. When you get excited, lower rather than raise your voice.

5. Ask for opinions often – Managers who seek knowledge as opposed to impressing their brilliance or agenda on others have less tendency to be bullies.

6. Think before speaking – Ask yourself if this is the way to gain real commitment or just temporary compliance. Is it good for the culture?

7. Reduce the number of absolutes you use – Saying “You never do anything right” cannot possibly be true. Soften absolutes to allow for some reason.

8. Listen more and talk less – When you are shouting at people you cannot possibly hear their rationale or their point of view. Hear people out; do not interrupt them.

9. Don’t attack or abuse the weak – Just because you know an individual is too insecure to fight back is no reason to run over him or her. It only reveals your own weakness.

10. Write your own epitaph – Regarding your relationships with people close to you, how would you like to be remembered after you are gone?

My breakfast observation for today was that animals have a hard time following the Golden Rule, and there is a bully in every group. We humans have the power to actually modify our behavior to think more strategically and do things that are not only right for now, but right for the long term. Caring for people creates a culture of trust that is sustainable.