Electronic Communication We Can All Live With

By Raquelle Solon | Posted on 02.03.2011 | 0 comments
When we hear the word "sustainability," often one of the first things that comes to mind is the environment and ensuring its productivity in future generations. "Going green" is now a part of our daily lexicon as we move further away from being a paper-focused society to one that is environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

We receive constant reminders that we must preserve our planet not only for ourselves, but for future generations as well. Technology aids us in obtaining our goals for creating a sustainable community, nation, and world through sustainable architecture, renewable energy, and electronic communication. There isn't anything that technology hasn't affected in the 21st century. New technology and communication methods may at times seem convenient, but they don't replace our need to respect each other.

Our high-tech gadgetry often brings cost and time savings, resulting in service that is more efficient to patrons and to internal customers. The downside to all this is that as we rely more heavily on the various high-tech gadgets, we interact much less in face-to-face communication. The "human element" in communication has been reduced, or in some cases, eliminated altogether. As a result, the intent or primary points of a communicator can often be missed or misinterpreted. This can lead to anxiety and defensiveness in the recipient.

Outstanding service includes both learning the technical components of our new devices and remembering to show human concern when utilizing them.

What are the following types of communication that you use on a daily basis?






Text message 

Instant message

Internet posting




Any others?

What do these types of communication have in common? None of these offer in-person interaction. There are some clear advantages to using these types of communication. They allow us to receive information more quickly, they ease global communication, and they save time. While there are many advantages, there are also clear disadvantages.

These disadvantages present challenges because we are not typically communicating face-to-face when utilizing technology to convey messages. The first disadvantage is that most, if not all, of our nonverbal communication is eliminated. An astounding 90% of what we communicate is comprised of how we say something, rather than what we say. Think about that for a second. Only 10% of our communication involves the actual words we use.

When we aren't standing in front of someone, there isn't an opportunity to communicate through nonverbal cues how we're feeling or what we're thinking. The other person can't see our facial expressions or our body language. Paraverbal communication—the tone, volume, and cadence of our voices—is lost when we communicate through written communication. Unfortunately, this also means that we can't pick up, through personal observation of the other person's nonverbal or paraverbal communication, on what the other person is feeling or thinking.

When we are speaking with someone face-to-face, and even in most phone interactions, we can get a sense of what the other person is feeling. If the person is talking unusually fast, that might indicate anxiety. A certain tone could indicate that the person is defensive. In a one-way conversation, such as a voicemail, the intended message could be different from what we perceive.

The tone of written messages can also be misconstrued. Is the person using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? Excessive exclamation points? A certain font, or bold words? Did the person include an emoticon, like a little smiley or a sad face? These can all influence what the receiver of that message perceives the message to be, even if that isn't what the written word of the message states or what the message was meant to convey.

Another disadvantage with non-face-to-face communication is that these conversations are usually one-way. There is limited opportunity to clarify with further questions, which can lead to frustration. In an email, for example, it may be difficult to determine the sender's emotional state. Is the person angry, frustrated, tired, stressed, or just in a hurry? Maybe he seemed short and to the point in his email because he responded via his Blackberry at an airport. He thinks he's being helpful by being able to give needed information before he boards his plane. The person receiving the "short" message wonders why she's getting such a curt response. The writer's thoughtfulness of responding a few hours or even days sooner than he would have been able to otherwise is then lost on the recipient.

How do we get past these obstacles in the age of increasing electronic communication? We need to maintain a culture that fosters mutual respect and professionalism within relationships. When we do that, we go a long way in creating a respectful dialog. Here are a few tips to get you pointed in the right direction.

First and foremost, any form of communication, whether in person or not, should be delivered in a respectful manner. Empathize with the person you are communicating with and take into consideration her perceptions and needs. Just because it's an email doesn't mean you can't be respectful. Think about the subject line, greeting, and closing; courtesy still goes a long way.

Greet the person by name. Typically, it's appropriate to address a person by his first name only if you know him. You should follow your organization's protocol for use of title. Some people prefer to be called by their title because they have worked long and hard to earn it. A good rule of thumb is to utilize a person's title in the greeting until she lets you know that it's all right to call her something else. Until Dr. Jones says, "Just call me Pam," call her Dr. Jones.

You should always use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation in workplace communication. While you're limited to only 140 characters to update your Twitter activity, you shouldn't take shortcuts elsewhere. It's easy to get careless when we're communicating with coworkers, but it doesn't take too much extra effort to run a spell check, or to—gasp!—read what you have just written.

Also, avoid using jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. Jargon may be especially difficult for someone outside your organization to understand, and it may be perceived as talking over the recipient. Although "ROFLOL" may seem to be universally understood within your texting community, it may not be understood by everyone as "rolling on the floor laughing out loud."

Next, give your undivided attention, even if you're not face-to-face with someone. Trying to multitask while communicating can lead to more misunderstandings, so avoid doing it. We all have a need to be heard. If someone has provided information you requested, but because you weren't paying attention or because you were rushed, you don't see it, and you ask again for the information, that person may feel disrespected or that you really don't care. Trust is hard to win back once it's gone.

Respond in a reasonable amount of time. When at all possible, don't keep someone waiting for a response, but if you need more time, let him know. You don't want someone thinking that you forgot, or worse, that you're ignoring him, if that isn't the case.

When communication has broken down or has become hostile or anxious, there are a few things you can do to defuse the situation. If you can, avoid responding right away. Take a moment to cool down and let your own emotions dissipate. Count to ten, get up, or take a walk—most of all remember to take a deep breath. The person's behavior is affecting you and vice versa. Don't add fuel to the fire by responding to what you perceive as an angry email with an angry email of your own, or by picking up the phone and leaving an angry voicemail. Coming back to that email later will likely help you create a more appropriate, professional, and respectful response.

You also need to remember that the person's perceived behavior may have nothing to do with you. Her behavior may be related to factors that are beyond her control. You don't know exactly what's going on in her life. You may also be going through things that have nothing to do with the other person, and you may be more prone to take offense than you would otherwise be. Are you upset with the other person or are you upset because your child wrecked your car last night after having just received his license? Detach from the situation for a moment to see what's really going on.

As soon as you perceive stress or anxiety, move to a more personal communication method. Sometimes an endless back-and-forth of emails just seems to make things worse. Having a face-to-face conversation might be the best way to resolve the misunderstanding. When you need to convey complex information or when the discussion might lead to questions, a phone call or a face-to-face conversation is the best way to go.

When you do talk, keep to the facts. Don't let opinions cloud what the specific issue was in the first place. Address the other person's concerns and allow him to vent, if needed. Don't make promises you can't keep just to appease the other person. Be honest about what you can and can't do, but follow through as agreed.

In any communication method, if threats are made, they need to be taken seriously. Don't dismiss a threat simply because the person is not nearby. An assessment needs to be taken regardless of what means were used to make the threat. A threat on Facebook is still a threat, and in this age of cyberbullying, maybe even more so.

After any disrespectful, angry, or hurtful communication occurs, you need to debrief. It's often a forgotten component, but it is important. If possible, this should be done in person. Be sure to clarify what your organization's polices are so both parties know them. Identify the original issue that sparked the incident or misunderstanding to begin with. When emotions run high, we can easily forget what made us upset in the first place. Make sure the original issue is resolved, and if it hasn't been, discuss it during the debriefing. Once this is done, focus on how to prevent future problems.

As we show a renewed respect for our planet and our resources by inventing new and "improved" methods of communication, let's not forget respect for each other. The words of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, chairman of the World Commission on Environment and Development, ring as true today as they did in 1987, when she presented the leading call for sustainability, "Our Common Future," to the United Nations. She said, "Human progress now demands that we realize that we are neighbors on a small and fragile planet, and that our duty of care for each other is not only a mutual moral obligation, but also in our self-interest." That's worthwhile sustainability, and an ideal we can achieve with continued efforts.


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