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Are Our Communications Choices Holding Us Back?


Someone on a cellphone
Image: JeongHyeon Noh - Alamy Stock Photo
When we’re just little nuggets growing up, part of our early education is learning how to interact with one another in a mutually productive way. Parents and teachers call it “getting along well with others.” In order to learn to communicate productively with others, we have to engage in person. We are encouraged to learn to speak kindly, listen carefully and not give in to the temptation to call any of our classmates blockheads.
But kids have phones, and they have had them for over 15 years, meaning that those people who are now parents may not have had the chance or inclination to develop good online social skills. Children in the educational system, from kindergarten through college, have spent considerable time learning remotely, thus losing time to acquire or practice in-person human (aka, social) skills. Kids are becoming more comfortable with the digital anonymity that online communications can present. And as they mature, they’re either failing to learn good communication skills, or the skills are rusty from lack of use.
All of this can contribute to a reluctance to engage in person, which impacts their lives in a number of ways. Let’s look at a few of those ways.
Communication in hiring and managing employees
As we emerge from our remote working habits, it’s important to re-evaluate our soft skill set, such as in-person communication, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving.
As far back as 2013, (and this is pre-pandemic, by the way), 60% of employers reported that many applicants lacked the communication and interpersonal skills necessary for the job requirement, according to Time magazine.
That issue runs both ways, as well. Many managers suffer from a “fear of face time.” No, it’s not being fearful of the iPhone app; this is about being reluctant to provide in-person feedback to employees. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of managers would rather not engage in a “critical feedback” session with employees for fear of a negative response.
Manager feedback, however, is what most employees seek. In a recent report from Spiceworks, 57% of employees report not receiving clear directions at work, leading to job dissatisfaction and poor performance. In-person, constructive feedback delivered with empathy and clarity goes a long way toward assuring peak productivity and job satisfaction.
Ghosting, a term coined to describe the act of someone ending all personal communication suddenly and without explanation, has spread to the business world. Fear of rejection, fear of having to reject, and fear of confrontation all contribute to this behavior. Where it used to be “accepted” that a prospective employer might fail to contact a candidate, now the reverse has become commonplace, largely because of the tight labor market: candidates are simply opting out of communication. Failing to follow up, even if the news you want to deliver is unpleasant (thanks but no thanks) erodes trust and makes both parties feel uncomfortable. It's rarely a good career move to be associated with making other people uncomfortable during the most basic of professional communications.
Ghosting has also found its way into the buyer-seller and customer service arena.
I recently had two experiences where I was trying to purchase services from suppliers. One was a very prominent telecommunications company, and the other was a caterer I’d wanted to hire for an event. The interactions were held via email (the telecom company) and Facebook Messenger (the caterer). In both instances, the initial conversations seemed positive but quickly went cold: the suppliers ghosted me once we started talking costs. (Was it something I said?)
Ghosting in a sales process or in a customer service interaction leaves a terrible impression for the buyer or customer and negatively affects overall sales performance. While it’s tempting to go dark on an unhappy customer (for fear of confrontation, once again), that action will certainly cement that customer’s opinion of your company, and they will be only too eager to tell others of their experience.
Bold anonymity isn’t just relegated to online communications, however. Telephone call interactions can also be challenging if one or both parties have insufficient communication skills. A friend of mine Susie recently had this experience with a customer service agent at her bank. She had just attempted to transfer money via the bank's mobile app and wanted to find out how to track the progress of the transfer. Here's how the call she made to the bank's customer service line went:
Susie: Hi, I’m trying to track down a transfer I just made. I’m in the app, but it’s not showing up in my other account, and it’s been three days since I made the transfer.
Customer service representative: Well, your branch is a franchise, and you’ve reached the main office.”
Susie: I understand, but the app shows only this phone number to call for support. How can I track my transfer?
Customer service representative: Ma’am, you’ll need to refer to the app. That’s why we created it, for people to be able to self-serve.
Susie: I’m using the app, but it’s not giving me the answer I need. Can you track my money or not?
Customer service representative: The app was geared toward younger people who understand technology. I’ve told you that several times. If you can’t figure that out, perhaps you should visit your branch.
Susie: What’s your name? I feel I need to report how you are handling this call.
Customer service representative: (Hangs up)
Even if the customer service rep was having a bad day, he lacked the communication skills to make the business customer feel as if her complaints were heard, and he lacked the skills to offer an actionable resolution. As a result – Susie has now told at least ten people what the app experience and customer support were like with this particular bank. An employee's lack of soft skills can hurt a business's reputation.
And finally, there’s the information overload
I read a statistic recently that each day, we’re bombarded with over 74 GB of information, or the equivalent of 175 newspapers. Most of that information is flooding into our consciousness electronically. Couple that with the endless to-do lists our brains are managing, and you have a recipe for short attention span syndrome.
Now let’s consider electronic communications. Imagine you’ve been sent a message or an email that’s wordy and unclear. All you know is that the sender apparently wants you to glean something from the email or to take action. As you scan the words on the page, your brain is looking for the kernels of value, for the point of the communication After reading a few lines, and seeing how many are left, you either file it in the read-later file or go on to the next thing.
The sender has inadvertently caused the reader to “dig for the diamonds,” and the reader, given the reams of information incoming each day, has shuttled it aside for later reading (which rarely happens).
A more effective strategy would have been to thumbnail the purpose and the stated objective of the message right up front, then supply all the supporting information in the paragraphs following as needed. This is particularly important when forwarding a message or email.
I have a colleague who likes to forward emails to me without context or stated objective, hoping I’ll figure out what she wants me to know or do. When this started happening, I would read the entire message (usually from a third party whom I have no knowledge of), and still not know what she had in mind. I’ve unfortunately been trained to just set those things aside until/if I have time to read it and ask her what she wants me to do. Often, my diamond digger comes up empty. It would be great if my colleague could take 30 seconds to add a line explaining what she wants.
The common thread in each of these challenges is that we’ve forgotten how to have empathy for our intended audience. By stopping a moment to put ourselves in their shoes and consider how our communication strategies might affect the recipient, we can go a long way toward fostering mutually trusting relationships.