While writing will always be open to interpretation, it’s far less open to interpretation than body language, reactions, passing comments, whispers on the wind, moral values, historical precedent or anything else equally abstract under the communication umbrella. Laws are not common unspoken understandings between citizens and the courts; laws live on paper in writing. Life at home, operations at your organization or cooperation in your community often improve when words grace the page.
If you hope to bring clarity to a situation, put it on paper. Outline it on paper. Announce it on paper. Rules, feedback, expectations, values and goals all work better when written and preserved. They become real. Sure, words can be misunderstood or interpreted in many ways. The best writers learn to use this to their advantage. When it comes to clarity in writing, less is more – with fewer words (specifically adjectives), there’s less room for wandering interpretations. Memos are good. Assumptions are bad. Dialogue without recording serves no concrete or lasting purpose. It disappears and distorts. The written word by itself does not distort.
Human conflict, drama and gossip are all very funny things. Call me idealistic, but I do not believe that deep down people genuinely dislike other people. Bad relationships form out of misinformation or no information at all. We’ve all been gifted with perspective and egos, but they often do us the disservice of helping listeners misinterpret a speaker and inspiring speech to skew with bias. It is very, very easy – even more so for the most mindful, brilliant, sociable or well-spoken people – to misunderstand each other. Dialogue, body language and writing are all very delicate things. If you find yourself in a sticky situation with another human being, give him or her the benefit of the doubt and blame poor communication first. Try to get the other person to do the same. Get on the same page about miscommunication and you are one step closer to working it out. It’s not the other person’s fault – do not blame him or her. It’s communication’s fault.
I did the math and realized my phone buzzes or beeps once every 3.5 minutes during the average work day. Over 90% of that comes from email. It’s a miracle that I am able to pay attention to anything at all with that party going on in my pocket. And forget restful sleep – there’s no way. Email is huge a distraction in my life. Out of spite, I’ve started leaving my phone places. Unfortunately, that results in a nasty habit of missing worthwhile phone calls. To combat the distraction, I started a very simple experiment: turning off all email notifications on my phone and laptop. I intend to track productivity and see how things go. With any luck, I will find myself more engaged in work, meetings, conversation and social outings. Text messages and instant messenger are still fair game if you have something urgent to say. Otherwise, you’re shooting in the dark with an email – I’ll get back to you when I choose to (and not when my phone nags me to).
It’s the single healthiest thing you can do for your organization, relationships, partnerships, parenting or marriage. I’m convinced that’s why my parents have lasted 30 years together. Sitting down is the first and essential step toward strong communication. Make time for it. I’m not kidding.
Sometimes there’s nothing you need to say. That’s okay.
As much as it pains me to quote a Quentin Tarantino film on my blog, awkward silences always make me think of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction: “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” You don’t need to flap your gums all the time. There are other ways to communicate and experience relationships. Sometimes it’s just nice to sit there with someone. Enjoy the company. Feel the breeze. Live life – and remember you’re living it together. I will never bash good conversation. But some of the best moments in life go unspoken.
People do not like too many choices and procrastinate making decisions. Even the most opinionated people I know do not always answer your question in a timely fashion.
The easiest way to get a response? Make your question as easy as possible to answer. Don’t bury it with information, encrypt it in an email or forget the question mark. Provide a concise brief upfront and ask a yes or no question. Make it a multiple choice question if you need to. At the very least, provide the recipient with possible answers so he or she does not need to do the research or draft an elaborate answer of his or her own. Take the opportunity to curtail the list of possible answers to meet your own needs. If the recipient comes up with an answer other than the ones provided, whatever. At least you got an answer.
Busy people (like CEOs and celebrities) are notorious for single-line emails. Help them keep that pace and not bog them down with answering your question. The more you help them and consider their time, the easier it will be to get an answer – and the greater chances you will have at getting an answer you like.
I think people forget that phones can still be used for voice conversations. I get so many back and forth text messages or email chains on a day to day basis. In the hours that pass trading notes, the discussion could have passed and resolved in a handful of minutes. Texts make sense for updates. Emails make sense for a bigger pile of information. For making big decisions or catching up? Not even close.
Call someone. It’s quicker, more personal and less ambiguous.
Every email I receive presumes to be imminently earth-shattering. Very annoying. Ninety-five percent of emails that hit my inbox are not urgent. I receive around 250 emails per business day – that’s one email every two minutes. It takes me forever to craft thoughtful replies, so I regularly fall behind in trying to keep up. To prevent this constant influx of faux peril from stressing me out, I am paying less and less attention to email these days. In the process, I’ve let a few important notes slip through the cracks. Oh well.
If it’s important or time sensitive, don’t just email me – call or approach me in person. I ignore my phone during meetings for everything except calls (it vibrates a dozen consecutive times when you ring me, so it’s difficult to ignore). Knock if you need to. If the issue at hand is complicated, follow up with details in writing so I have all necessary and accurate info in front of me to address the situation. If you can’t get ahold of me in person or by phone, put ‘URGENT’ in the subject line. Obviously, don’t do that if it’s not urgent.
To get real work done without distraction, I need to ignore my email for a sizable fraction of the day. You should, too. Constantly replying to emails means you’re working reactively instead of proactively. Unless you work in a call center, reactive work only contributes to the status quo of your organization. In a competitive industry, status quo work can be regressive and therefore deadly for a company. Don’t do it.
If I don’t write you back within a few hours (or days), why would you follow up with a second email? That’s silly. Your method failed the first time – why on earth would it succeed any better a second time?
If an email exchange we’re participating in turns critical, please cover all bases and follow up in person with everyone involved. Get our collective heads out of email and into real problem-solving mode. Hear the voices of others repeat back to you their understanding of the situation. Make sure everyone is on the same page – on paper and in dialogue. Then get real work done.