Improving Electronic Communication 1

February 20, 2019

Many of us now view electronic communication (email or texting) casually. We just type information as if we were chatting with someone in the hallway. This is potentially a big mistake.

When we communicate verbally, most information is conveyed through body language and voice inflection; only a small fraction of information is conveyed by the actual words. In electronic communication, all we have are the words as clues to decode information accurately, so the challenge is significant.

Imagine the advantage if we could read “ebody language.” We could understand the intent of notes by interpreting meaning in between the words on the screen. That skill would be important, as the percentage of electronic communications continues to rise. There is ample “body language,” and even voice inflection, available in electronic communications—if we know how to read the signals.

Unfortunately, most people have no training in reading electronic body language. They rely on the written words to impute meaning, which is like trying to paint a full-color picture using only red paint. They can’t blend different colors into subtle shades that reflect the richness of the scene.

Working with just the words means that sometimes people become offended when no offense was intended.

To read between the lines of text online, we have to pay attention to the signals and integrate them into a pattern that yields more information than the words alone. For example, if we know what to look for, the first few words on a message often give vital clues to the tone of the note.

The difference between “Hi Mary,” and “So Mary,” is huge if you are Mary. Keep an eye out for the tone, timing, and tension in your electronic communications.


Tone builds additional meaning into notes in dozens of ways. Emoticons and acronyms are two well-known methods that should be used sparingly and only in casual communications.

Qualifying conjunctions, such as the word “but,” often convey the opposite meaning from the literal words of a note: “We loved your class, but it is good to have it completed.” The conjunction becomes an “eraser word” because people pay more attention to what comes after the “but.”

Other kinds of expressions might also convey the opposite meaning. For example, “no offense” usually means the writer is expecting you may take offense. Some words or phrases tend to inflame people if not managed carefully. “Let me make it perfectly clear” is a good example.

Much of the tone of a note is contained in pronouns. “You” is the most commonly misused pronoun. “You never let me finish my work” is an example. The reader interprets this as an accusation or lecture and becomes defensive. Whenever starting a sentence with “you,” check to see if it might send a wrong signal.

Overuse of the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “my” make the writer sound parochial or egotistical.

Too much emphasis on “we” and “they” will signal a competitive atmosphere where silos inhibit good communication and cooperation.

To maintain credibility, avoid using absolutes. “She has never done anything to help us” is easily proven incorrect.

Try to avoid phrases with double meanings, one of which is sarcastic: “His diatribe at the meeting shows what an emotionally intelligent leader he is.” Sarcasm is often disguised as humor, but it can quickly backfire with uncontrolled distributions.

Never write something in an email that you would not be willing to have anyone read, because literally anyone might receive a copy.


Timing issues with electronic communication often lead to problems. A major issue is the asynchronous nature of email and often with texting. Since people open notes at different times, one person might respond to a note that has already been superseded, leading to much confusion.

When chatting, your input may be a response to a point made several entries back, which can lead to unintended, often comical, but sometimes embarrassing exchanges.

The antidote is to be alert for misunderstandings based on when people respond to notes. Sometimes notes arrive in the inbox when readers are in an overload situation or otherwise unable to react positively.

The solution to timing issues with electronic communications is to use common sense and try to reach your reader at a time when he or she is most receptive. This advice is more critical when emotions are high.


Tension and interpersonal conflict often leave a bloody trail in electronic correspondence. Inappropriate outbursts of anger in texts or e-mails usually make both parties look foolish. When individuals escalate conflict in online exchanges, it becomes like a childish food fight.

The way to stop an “electronic grenade” battle is to refrain from taking the bait. Do not respond to the attack in kind. Acknowledge a difference of opinion, but do not escalate the situation. Switching to a different form of communication will help avoid a trail of embarrassing notes.

The three T’s explain some of the mechanics of e-body language, but why should organizations be vitally interested in this subject?

E-xcellence: The Corporate Case

E-xcellence offers a pragmatic and inexpensive approach to resolve some of the most frustrating issues quickly. All organizations face the challenges associated with communicating online efficiently. The solutions may appear elusive. So, by including e-xcellence as part of your vision, you gain a huge competitive advantage.

Your organization has a sustainable competitive advantage if:

• You live and work unhampered by the problems of poor online communication.

• Employees are not consumed by sorting out important information from piles of garbage notes.

• Coworkers are not focused on one-upmanship and internal turf wars.

• Leaders know how to use electronic communications to build trust.

Once you learn the essentials of electronic body language, you will be more adept at decoding incoming messages and better sense how your messages are interpreted by others.

You will understand the secret code written “between the lines” of messages and enhance your online communications in your sphere of influence. Next week I will share some additional principles to keep in mind when communicating electronically.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763