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Leadership Thought #214 – Communication Is An Interpersonal Activity

September 15, 2011

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While email and text messaging are effective communication tools, they are poor vehicles for dealing with conflict.  Sadly, they can be used very effectively for instigating conflict.  I have seen passive-aggressive behavior taken to new heights by individuals who don’t have to worry about the interpersonal dynamics of looking another person in the eye when talking to them or reading and responding to group body language and other visual cues.  It’s easy to rail against someone from a distance.  It is also common to misinterpret the intentions behind the message and jump to conclusions that may be flawed.

It is professionally unnerving how quickly conflict can escalate online.  I’ve seen people destroy careers and business relationships in a matter of minutes.  Once you hit the send button, it is impossible to take something back.  In addition, if you have copied everyone on the periphery of the issue, it now becomes a group issue which further complicates the problem and usually annoys the other parties involved.  Interestingly enough, people who try to rally others to their point of view in an online debate often end up alienating as many colleagues as they convince.

Many experts have told me that most of our communication is received in a non-verbal manner.  The words and content are certainly important, but as human beings we are hardwired to read the other person’s body language, tone of voice and situational dynamics are a more accurate barometer of what is taking place and a better gauge of the health of any given relationship.   If you take these elements away from the dialogue, then we are left confused and usually a bit defensive about what someone else is really trying to tell us.  As a result, many of us jump to negative, rather than positive conclusions based on our own personal and professional insecurities.

I advise my clients to have a “No Email/Text Messaging Conflict Policy.”  Non-verbal communication tools should be used for information gathering and dissemination purposes only, not to encourage constructive dialogue or manage conflict.  I also believe that copying other people on emails should be used sparingly and only with their consent.  Email and text messaging doesn’t hold people accountable.  Employees choose accountability and professionalism for themselves. Those that don’t will only use any vehicle available to deflect responsibility and shift blame and criticism.

It is not unusual these days for people working in the same building (and often on the same floor) not to bother to walk over to a colleague’s desk or office and speak with them directly.  This is not increasing efficiency but instead creating unnecessary friction and hindering shared responsibility and team building.  It is also perpetuating social laziness.  I understand that global companies or businesses with many offices don’t have the luxury of fostering face-to face communication on an ad hoc basis.  However, the phone still works, and you can use video or teleconferencing tools.   Communication with someone is an interpersonal activity and you can’t take the “personal” out of it.