Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's That, You Say?

Clear communication is as rare as unicorns. And it’s easy to understand why. Even when words are in black and white, we all read with a lens that is uniquely our own. That lens draws on the baggage, beliefs and assumptions we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.

Let’s take e-mails as an example:
  • Brief, to-the-point e-mails are often viewed as terse.
  • E-mails with tons of exclamation points and emoticons can be construed as over-the-top or insincere.
  • One supercharged word can alienate the reader from the get-go and the rest of the message is essentially lost.
  • Long e-mails will be scanned by busy people and the most salient point can be overlooked.

Now, extrapolate these assumptions to longer communications like personal letters, reports or even books. We all have the same 26-letter alphabet to string together words, phrases and paragraphs. Are we certain that our apology comes off as sincere or that our argument is persuasive and not snarky?

What’s that you say? People should communicate face-to-face and there wouldn’t be these problems?

Ha! And double ha, I say to you. In-person communication can be just as fraught with inaccuracies based on perceived attitudes, gestures, body language, etc. We may be so antsy waiting for our turn to speak that we completely miss nuances in the other person’s words. A person looks at his watch and we think he's not interested in what we're saying.

So, how do we become clearer in our communications? Let me know what’s worked for you – or if you have any examples of miscommunications to share.


  1. I've been counseled by more than one supervisor that my e-mails come across as terse -- when I think I'm just being concise and straightforward. Something I've had to pay attention to!

  2. I've spent my life trying to cushion the potential perceived impact of my words and actions. People pleasing. Dancing around issues. Trying to be a chameleon.
    Finally (finally!) I'm beginning to value the beauty of trust over pleasantness. Coming to a point in my life where I'd much rather hear it 'sugar free' and honest rather than pleasant and empty.
    (If my writing sucks, please tell me you think it sucks. It's up to me to decide what to do with your feedback. But at least I know how I'm coming across to you.)
    And yet, even as I move to this new way of expressing myself, and even as I ask people for honest, brutal feedback, still they have more compliments to offer than anything that I can really look at. Still they apologize when they finally DO give me what I ask for.
    Man. What's up with that?