We have all sent or received an email that was misinterpreted. Regardless of whether we are the sender or the receiver, the experience is crummy. We feel defensive, misunderstood, unappreciated, angry, sad … the list of adjectives could go on and on. In good scenarios, we recognize that there is a communication break down, pick up the phone, and the issue is happily resolved five minutes later. Too often, we reply in an increasingly cold way ensuring that the sender also feels the alienation we experienced.
While it is more than possible to misinterpret what someone says in person, the odds are higher with email communication. “Face-to-face interaction … is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say” (Goleman, 2007).
side by side …
This communication demo illustrates how a brief email, a voice mail, and an in person conversation can use the same words but create very different experiences. The email is not offensive, but it seems cold and allows room for interpreted blame – which leads to room for defensiveness. If I had received this email, I would have felt like I needed to explain why I had not gotten my piece completed on time. The voicemail is slightly warmer; however, I still felt slightly defensive. While the in person interaction does still have the urgency of needing the completed work, the body language, her smile and relaxed tone feels more like a reminder. I’d be more likely to respond pleasantly and collaboratively.
what can be done …
When working on a project, these steps will help increase the positive communication:
- Create an audience list to ensure everyone who needs information receives it. Clear communication will help keep everyone informed and avoid hurt feelings (Portny, et al, 2008).
- Meet with key players at the start of a project to talk about communications. In the meeting, clarify the benefits of strong communications and identify any potentially problematic issues - words, analogies, approaches, etc. (Laureate, 2012).
- We are less likely to misinterpret email communications from people we know and have communicated with in person (Goleman, 2007). Develop initial face-to-face relationships and nurture those throughout the project.
- When informal conversations occur, follow up with a formal written summary (Portny, et al, 2008). I have found this helps tie the feeling of the in person communication to the more formal email communication method, buying me an emotional buffer and increasing the chance that subsequent email communications will read as less cold and stiff and decrease the chance for misunderstanding.
- Finally, you may need to tailor your communications to meet different needs of project team members, stakeholders, or key players. As the project manager, it is your job to communicate with them, not their job to conform to your preference (Laureate, 2012).
I fear workplace miscommunication is not going away any time soon, but we can take steps to minimize the occurrence and mitigate the damage. An acknowledgement of the derailment usually goes a long way toward getting communication back on track!
Goleman, D. (2007, October 7) E-Mail is easy to write (and to misread) The New York Times. Retreived from http://www.nytimes.com/
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2012). Practitioner voices: strategies for working with stakeholders [Video webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_551248_1%26url%3D
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2012). Project management concerns: Communication strategies and organizational [Video webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_551248_1%26url%3D
Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.