Six Tips for Improving Electronic Communications

February 27, 2019

Last week I discussed interpreting electronic body language. Decoding electronic body language well is the mirror image of being sensitive to the messages we write. Let’s look at some important, but often overlooked, principles of clear electronic communication. Here are six key principles to consider:

1. Different from verbal communications

Everyone knows that e-mail and texting are different from conversations, but often people don’t change their communication patterns accordingly.

For example, people cannot modify content of a message based on the real-time visible reaction of the other party as in face-to-face conversations. Instead, all information is presented at once without feedback.

Misunderstandings or hurt feelings are common. No matter how sensitive you try to be, the reader may interpret your comments as being insensitive.

2. Electronic documents are permanent documents

Once the “send” button is pushed, you can’t take it back, and you normally lose all control over who views your words. The permanent nature of notes is often forgotten in everyday interactions, but the implications are serious.

Consider the difference between verbal praise and praise via email. When praise is given vocally, the impact is reduced over time as people tend to forget. When praise is given via email, the recipient is likely to read it many times and even print it out to show others at home. The benefit is amplified.

Unfortunately, the more lasting impact also occurs on the negative side. A verbal reprimand is an unhappy event for anyone, but time often mitigates the pain. A reprimand in a text or email tends to endure and even feel worse with time. It will be read many times, and may be forwarded to others.

3. Understand the objective

Before you write a note, consider what are you trying to accomplish. Make sure when you proofread a note that it will achieve your goal.

Most people who annoy or anger others in notes don’t have that intention. You can eliminate problems if you clarify your objective.

4. Less is more in electronic communication

Short notes are more likely to be read and understood. A note must be opened, read, and internalized by the reader to have any value.

People who write long, detailed, and technically perfect notes are frequently ignored by others due to the volume of information. Have they communicated or just annoyed?

5. Set the tone

Your tone is established in the first sentence, or in the case of an email in the subject line. A poor start means the reader is likely to reject much of the content or become defensive. Notes that start with the right tone are more effective.

6. Write when you are yourself

Avoid sending messages that are written when you are angry or not yourself. At these times, you are not the person you want to portray to the world.

These points seem obvious, but they are often ignored. With the proper mindset and attention to detail, you can easily make major improvements to your electronic communications.

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 http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


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

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

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

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 http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Trust and Focus

July 25, 2015

VisionI claim to be able to accurately determine the level of trust in a group by just observing the interactions of people in the group for about 10-30 seconds. It is not hard at all. You just have to pay attention to what people are saying.

If you observe a team, and people are talking about the vision they are trying to accomplish or the new product they are launching, then you are likely observing a high trust group. That is because their focus is outward on what they are trying to accomplish.

Instead, if you observe people at work and they are talking about each other, usually in negative or defensive terms, chances are good that team is a low trust group.

If people are myopic and focus their energy inward defensively rather than outward with a positive attitude, it shows a lack of interpersonal trust.

Let’s take the exact same condition going on within a manufacturing unit and evesdrop on a short break room conversation:

Low Trust Group – No wonder we are falling behind, Fred and Margaret are more interested in their love affair than in doing their part of the work. We will never get there if they don’t pull their load, but management is so clueless they don’t see the problem.

High Trust Group – I think we are going to make the aggressive target for customer service this month. This will make three months in a row we have met their needs. Even though Fred and Margaret get starry-eyed sometimes, they are making a good contribution to production.

You don’t need to be a PhD to accurately identify the level of trust in a group. Simply pay attention to the words being used on a daily basis. It is a dead giveaway that can be applied very quickly. You will find it to be remarkably accurate.

Exercise for you: Try keeping track for a day by making hash marks on a 3X5 inch card. When you hear constructive comments about satisfying customers or pursuing the vision, put a mark on the right side of the card.

If you hear griping conversations about the other team members slacking off, or managers messing up, put the mark on the left side. At the end of the day, simply count up the marks, and you will have a good approximation of the trust level in that area.

It is not just the words but also the body language that shows the attitudes of people toward their fellow workers. It is very easy to detect supportive and positive feelings and even easier to see hatred or lack of care.

People working together day to day project their level of interpersonal comfort and trust, but most people ignore the signal. Now that you know the secret, pay attention to what people are saying and you will have better insights.


 

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to http://www.avanoo.com/first3/517


Focus on Trust Level

March 28, 2015

VisionI claim to be able to accurately determine the level of trust in a group by just observing the interactions of people in the group for about 10-30 seconds. It is not hard at all. You just have to pay attention to what people are saying.

If you observe a team, and people are talking about the vision they are trying to accomplish or the new product they are launching, then you are likely observing a high trust group. That is because their focus is outward on what they are trying to accomplish.

Instead, if you observe people at work and they are talking about each other, usually in negative or defensive terms, chances are good that team is a low trust group. If people are myopic and focus their energy inward defensively rather than outward with a positive attitude, it shows a lack of interpersonal trust.

Let’s take the exact same condition going on within a manufacturing unit and evesdrop on a short break room conversation:

Low Trust Group – No wonder we are falling behind, Fred and Margaret are more interested in their love affair than in doing their part of the work. We will never get there if they don’t pull their load, but management is so clueless they don’t see the problem.

High Trust Group – I think we are going to make the aggressive target for customer service this month. This will make three months in a row we have met their needs. Even though Fred and Margaret get starry-eyed sometimes, they are making a good contribution to production.

You don’t need to be a PhD to accurately identify the level of trust in a group. Simply pay attention to the words being used on a daily basis. It is a dead giveaway that can be applied very quickly. You will find it to be remarkably accurate.

Try keeping track for a day by making hash marks on a 3X5 inch card. When you hear constructive comments about satisfying customers or pursuing the vision, put a mark on the right side of the card.

If you hear griping conversations about the other team members slacking off, or managers messing up, put the mark on the left side.

At the end of the day, simply count up the marks, and you will have a good approximation of the trust level in that area.

It is not just the words but also the body language that shows the attitudes of people toward their fellow workers. It is very easy to detect supportive and positive feelings and even easier to see hatred or lack of care.

People working together day to day project their level of interpersonal comfort and trust, but most people ignore the signal. Now that you know the secret, pay attention to what people are saying and you will have better insights.


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.


Instant Rapport

September 30, 2012

We all know that the first few minutes when meeting a new person or client are critical to the relationship. Malcolm Gladwell referred to the “thin slices” of meaning we interpret subconsciously when meeting someone new. His contention is that a relationship is basically established after just a few seconds, so it is important to know what to do and what to avoid doing in this critical period.

While we know the vital importance of body language and tone of voice, few of us have received any formal training on what things to do and to avoid to maximize the potential for good rapport and trust. The overarching objective is to let your natural personality and essence shine through as well as be sincerely interested in learning the qualities of the other person. This means making sure all the signals you send are congruent with your true nature and being alert for the full range of signals being sent by the other person.

While there are entire books on this topic, I wanted to share six things to do and six things to avoid from my own experience and background. Note these items are somewhat mechanical in nature. They are not intended to replace the good judgment in any instance but are offered as tips that can help in most cases.

Things to do:

1. Be yourself. Trying to force yourself into a mold that is not your natural state will not translate well. Regardless of your effort, you will unwittingly send ambiguous signals that will subconsciously be perceived as you trying too hard to establish rapport.

2. Shake hands. In most cultures, the hand shake is the touch ritual that conveys major content about both individuals. Each person is sending and receiving signals on several different levels in the few moments it takes to shake hands. Learn how to do it right, and do it with the right attitude. The handshake should project what is in your heart. Note, there are many myths about handshakes. For example, a “firm” handshake has historically been thought to send a signal of competence and power. If the firmness is amplified to a bone-crushing clamp, it actually sends a signal that the crusher is insecure, because why else would someone crush a hand unless he thought it was necessary to appear powerful.

3. Make good eye contact. We communicate at many levels with our eyes. It is important to really see the other person in a natural and pleasing way. Here is a tip about eye contact while shaking hands. Try to see through the eyes into the soul of the person you are meeting. Inside the other person’s head is a wonderland of possibilities, and the window to that information is first through the eyes.

4. Smile – Make sure it is appropriate to smile (although sometimes a somber expression is more appropriate – like at a funeral). The caveat here is that the smile must be genuine, not phony. Learn to smile from the eyes by picturing an oval from your eyebrows to your lips. Show your teeth, if they are in good shape. This really helps the warmth of a smile. Be sure to maintain eye contact while you are smiling. The peripheral vision of the other person will allow him or her to appreciate the smile. Consider the duration of the smile, because too short or too long of a smile can send mixed signals.

5. Give a genuine greeting – Most people say “how are you” or “nice to meet you.” Those greetings are not bad, but they do pass over an opportunity to show real enthusiasm for meeting the other person. Reason: these greetings are perfunctory and overused. They accomplish the greeting mechanically, but they do not establish a high emotional engagement. You might try a variant like “I am excited to meet you” or “how wonderful to meet you.” Be careful to not get sappy: see caveat number five below.

6. Ask the other person a question – The typical and easiest thing to do is say “tell me about yourself,” but you only would use that if there was adequate time for the individual to take you from grade school to the rest home. A better approach is to consider the environment around the person. There will be a clue as to what the other person might be experiencing at that moment. If you link in to the emotion with a question that draws out the other person, you have established dialog that is constructive. For example, if you meet a person in a hotel lobby who is dragging two suitcases with his left hand, you might say while shaking the right hand, “have you been travelling all day?” or “can I help you with one of your bags?”

Doing these six things will set you up for a good first impression provided they are consistent with the situation and your persona, but there are extensions of these same six things that should be avoided or you may blow the opportunity.

Things to avoid:

1. Do not work too hard – other people will instantly recognize at a gut level if you are putting on an act to impress them. If your natural tendency is to be a slap happy kind of salesman when meeting people, try to turn down the volume on that part while maintaining a cheerful nature.

2. One handed shakes only – the two handed shake, known as the “politician’s handshake,” is too invasive for a first meeting. It will cause the other person to emotionally retreat as a defense mechanism. It gives the impression that you are trying to reel in a big fish. Speaking of fish, also avoid the dead fish handshake. A firmly-flexed vertical hand with medium modulation is the best approach. Be sensitive to the fact that some people avoid handshakes due to physical reasons and do not force the issue or embarrass the person. Other than the handshake, there should be absolutely no touching of any other part of the body. This means, do not grab the elbow as you walk toward the elevator, do not put your hand on or playfully punch the shoulder of the other person, even if he is a “good guy.” Obviously, stay away from touching the legs or knees of any other person when sitting.

3. Avoid too much eye contact – Anything over 70% of eye contact during the first few minutes will cause great anxiety in the other person. A fixed gaze will send signals that are ambiguous at best and threatening at worst. The best approach is to lock eyes for a few seconds, then move your gaze on something else, perhaps a lapel pin or name tag, then return eye contact for a few seconds more. If you are a male meeting a female, avoid giving the up and down “checking her out” pattern, as many women find that highly offensive. Another caveat with eye contact is to avoid looking around the room during the first moments of meeting another person. Make sure the person recognizes you are focused 100% on him or her, even if the timing if fleeting. For example, Bill Clinton is said to have a gift of focusing genuine attention on each person, even when he is going down a long line of people he will never see again. With the intense eye contact, he makes each person feel valued in just a split second.

4. Do not smile as if you are holding back gas. If you try to force a smile, it will look as phony as a bad toupee. If you have a problem warming up to a new person with a genuine smile, try envisioning the person as having a check for a million dollars in her purse that she is about to give you. In reality she may have things inside her head that could be worth much more than a million dollars to you. Consider that possibility and be genuinely happy to meet the person. It will show on your face.

5. Do not go over the top with enthusiasm in your greeting – The greeting must come straight from the heart to send the signal you want. Your greeting should not gush or be drawn out like an Academy Award performance like, “Oh darling, how simply marvelous to meet you” – kissy kissy. You could make the other person want to vomit.

6. Avoid talking about yourself – Hold up on discussing your interests until cued by the other person. The natural tendency is to think in terms of this new person’s relationship to your world. Try to reverse this logic and think about wanting to know more about his or her world so you can link in emotionally to the other person’s thoughts. If you ask two or three questions of the other person, he or she will eventually ask a question about you. Try to keep the ratio of listening versus talking to roughly 70-30% with the weight of your attention on listening. The best conversationalists are the ones who do the least amount of talking.

By doing the six steps I have outlined while avoiding the extremes on the second list, you will have a good start to a new relationship. You will have planted the seeds of trust well. After that, you need to nurture the relationship continually to allow the seeds to grow to maturity.