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The Communication Paradox:

Posted on 4/1/15 12:00 PM

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bigstock-Hand-On-E-mail-Key-63384493Effective loss prevention is dependent on the timely receipt of information. Discovering dishonesty after the responsible person is gone is not as helpful as learning of their actions in advance of his or her departure. Being aware of a potential risk early on allows us to react sooner and thus reduce or avoid loss. One would think that in the age of high velocity communication, we would be more effective than ever. Unfortunately, what many of us have learned is that velocity doesn’t always mean efficiency.

In the early days of tech, communication was slower and took more effort. Many of us shared a single computer for email; we had to find payphones, and before the call, were required to punch in sometimes long and complicated calling card numbers. Today we have smart phones, iPads, laptops, several email accounts, text messaging, group chats, inter and intranet. The ability to communicate is both easy and fast. And in many ways the speed and ease have created less efficient communication.

The technology, of course, is not to blame. At the heart of the most common communication problems is the application of that technology or more accurately the behavioral short cuts we enlist that create confusion, uncertainty and something I call, Email Attention Deficit Disorder. Here is a list of the most common causes, followed by some suggestions that ensure our communication creates clarity and not confusion.

Nice to Know v. Need to Know: At the onset of email, it was “exciting” to receive an electronic communiqué. Today, most of us receive hundreds of them. The culprit is the “CC” line. Often the user, uncertain of who needs to know, copies everyone who might be even mildly interested in the topic. The result is dozens of emails filling the in-box and desensitization to the value of the communication. Many people today have adopted and attitude of: If it’s really important…text me.

The solution is for users to give the distribution as much consideration as the content itself. Who really needs to know? The truth is that if 15 people need to be involved in a decision than the process is better served with a conference call than an email.

Who’s on First: Emails are an excellent, low intrusive format for getting an answer to a question. The problem is the more people on the distribution list, the more difficult it is to determine who should give the answer. If a very senior person is addressed, another receiver may not feel comfortable being the first to respond, even when they have the answer. Equally, it is easy to assume that “someone else” or “anyone else” will respond which is fine…because you probably have a hundred other emails waiting to be read anyway. 

The solution is to be direct in the inquiry. Treat the email as you would any important question. When in a grocery store we don’t just ask an aisle full of shoppers where we can find the balsamic vinegar…we ask the person most likely to know. On those occasions where we wish to keep many people in the loop, we should still direct our questions to those on the list we would like to answer our question.

The Telephone Game: You may have played it as a kid. One person whispers something in someone’s ear and they repeat it to the next person and so on down the line. By the end of the process, “I like cold milk in the morning,” becomes “Mike’s silk is slowly snoring.” 

Emails can often become a version of this game. Too much information, unorganized thoughts, and unclear questions that result in unanswered issues. Sometimes in trying to get everything covered in a single email, we create a web of disjointed issues and compound questions with very little hope of being unraveled.

The solution is to keep it simple. Although no one wants “more” email, the volume often isn’t as big an issue as the depth. By keeping an email as a single topic, with a direct question, it is easy for the reader to comprehend and respond.

The Chain Letter: Much like the telephone game, the chain letter creates inefficiency and confusion. It’s always interesting to see a subject line that reads: re, re, re, re, re questions about the VCR. Emails are not paper, so there is nothing wrong with not recycling them. The more we reuse emails, the more likely our original subject matter will be lost and buried deep in a communication started years ago. Perhaps an over dramatization, but the point is the same.

The solution is to simply ask a new question or start a new topic on a new email with an appropriately related subject line.

We can’t go back to the days of simpler communication but we can take steps to relearn our new technology. The idea isn’t new. We all had to learn the dangers of ambivalent emotions in our written messages and most people are very cautious with that cap lock key. To streamline our communication we just need to practice good email behaviors—minimize the distribution list, keep things clear and concise, direct the communication at those who can answer and sometimes…just remember that the second word in smart phone…is phone.


Authored by: Tim Casey, Executive Director of Operations



Topics: career development

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