Author Nick Morgan talks to Frank Dillon about the problems with virtual communication and how to overcome them
Virtual communications permeates every aspects of our work and personal lives. In many ways, this is a good thing. Technology is a great enabler, providing efficiency and flexibility in the way that we communicate and opening up huge new possibilities for how we live and work. But there is a down-side, even a dark side, something US author Nick Morgan addresses in his book, ‘Can you hear me?’ (HBR Press).
Morgan is an English professor turned communications expert who has worked with major corporate and political figures in the US and worldwide. His thesis is that for all of its great advantages which he acknowledges, technology has many deficits that can lead to miscommunication and even stress at work.
“The biggest issue is that we use virtual communication – email, texts etc, as if we communicated face-to-face in the way we all learnt to communicate so we’re used to expressing the content of what we are saying but not the intent behind it – the emotional overtone, what we really mean. What’s missing is the intent. The biggest problem is that intent is no longer clear in our communication and the communication of others and that’s where the misunderstanding begins,” Morgan explains.
The absence of body language and the unspoken aspects of communication lies at the heart of the problem.
“One of the problems with virtual communication is that we have been hard-wired to be anxious communicators. You can imagine that among our ancestors, the ones who worried about the sabre-toothed tigers, were the ones who survived. We immediately assume the worst. When communication doesn’t go our way and we don’t get those ‘likes’ we assume that we have fallen off an emotional cliff that people no longer love us or they are not in interested and because the bonds of virtual communication are weaker we are more likely to turn on people ourselves so the whole tone can become nastier.”
Twitter is an example, he says, of an environment that numbs normal human feeling in a way that simply wouldn’t happen in the real world. “When we are face-to-face, we see the pain in someone else’s eyes when they are upset so we don’t feel licence to hurt them. That’s the great danger of social media where that filter isn’t there.”
With all of its advantages, technology is leaving us poorer and shallower, he adds. The sheer efficiency, speed and ease of virtual communications means that we are never going to give it up. Its too handy. Life without it would now be insupportablebut instead of depth and clarity, we have speed and superficiality. Morgan says that lots of studies show that as we become more and more information overloaded, one of our responses is skim and to respond with shorter email and text messages and so of course there are more misunderstandings and less powerful communications get through. It’s a vicious circle.
Ambiguous emails, he notes, increase stress and lead to more friction between people.“One of the shocking things I discovered in my research is that while we assume that our emails are understood, they are going through, the level of misunderstanding is about 50%, so the failure rate is huge. In any other form of human activity, we would not tolerate that.”
The danger in over-relying on virtual communication, is that ultimately it makes us less human, he maintains.
“The virtual world is inherently uninteresting because it takes survival out of the equation, it takes human interest out of the equation and it takes emotion out of the equation. What’s left no longer engages our deep connections with other people. What we humans are interested in is connecting deeply with other human beings and learning of their intent, how they feel about us and how we feel about them. In the virtual world that’s unintentionally cut out.”
Morgan has plenty of advice in his book about how to manage both text and audio-visually based communication. He suggests using emojis to convey emotion in email and text-based messages. “It would save so much agony. There’s research that shows that the older you are, the more likely you are to find emojis silly or immature. Young people seem to have no problem embracing emojis. We can all learn to embrace them. The biggest appeal is that it saves time. If you offend someone in an email because they have not understood the humour you are going to spend six more emails sorting that out. With an emoji or two, you can prevent that ever happening.”
Another tip is to what he describes as the ‘What’s in it for me move’ – putting a key phrase in the subject line to show the intent of the message my intent and this is what you are going to get out of it. If you train yourself to do that, it will pay off handsomely, he says.
Morgan on conference calls:
Put some life in your voice: it helps many people to have an actual person in the room with them. You are less likely to drift into a monotone and it helps keep the tone conversational
Have a designated MC. The result will be well worth the effort in having someone monitor problems, field questions, provide a road map. The MC should also summarise, add-in and generally clean up the conversation as it unfolds.
Agenda and note-taking:Agendas allow participants to pace themselves while note-taking provides clarity on what was discussed and agreed.
Limit the conversation:Attention spans have reduced greatly so never allow one person to speak for more than 10 minutes with pausing for questions and comments. Take questions as you go if there are several speakers.
Take on or appoint someone as an active listener: An active listener repeats what they have heard and gets confirmation on the accuracy of what they have received.