Lisagor: Tone-deaf communications

The Internet is truly a wonderful invention that allows us to communicate from a distance with large numbers of people. Our ability to share vital information and coordinate organizational activities is definitely enhanced.

But once we enter the lively world of human emotions, watch out!

As a management consultant, I have experienced both the wonders and pitfalls of e-mail. Like most tools, its value depends primarily on how we use it.

Ever sent an angry response to an e-mail only to discover you misunderstood something and your emotional outburst was unwarranted? Wasn't it embarrassing? Could you have avoided some hurt feelings by calling instead?

Ever sent an innocent message only to have people respond angrily to something they misinterpreted?

According to researchers, 7 percent of our communications is what we say, 38 percent is the way we say it — rate, tone and inflection — and 55 percent is our body language before, during and after we say it. So, what we write to one another needs to be extremely concise to be correctly understood.

E-mail is missing the crucial sounds of a human voice and the visual context clues that let us know what the sender is feeling and if the recipient is greatly upset, mildly peeved or encouraged.

In our rush to quickly share important information with as many people as possible, we often use e-mail as a shortcut. During the water-quality disaster that resulted from the hurricane that doused Washington, D.C., last September, information sharing was a lifesaver.

But when we're dealing with matters our co-workers feel strongly about, we are often too quick to hit the send button without adequate thought. It is very difficult to address someone's human nature through a computer.

It usually takes a person-to-person dialogue for us to be able to understand someone's true intention and avoid an aggravating situation. This is how we create harmony in our surroundings.

When I feel compelled to write an emotional e-mail, I send it to myself and reread it the next day before sending it on to others.

By taking time to reflect, I can ask myself why I don't just call the source of my frustration rather than sling a one-sided verbal arrow. Such arrows are impossible to recall and can cause considerable damage. In addition, I miss the opportunity to gauge the other person's reaction. How can I know if the recipient really understood what I meant if I can't see or at least talk to that person?

E-mail is great for communicating and clarifying simple schedule or meeting information and sharing policy guidelines. But if we're not careful, it can be a poor excuse for critical interaction. It takes our collective wisdom to use the full spectrum of human communication channels to build healthy organizations. So, the next time you have the urge to send some angry written words off into the World Wide Web, consider calling instead.

Lisagor founded Celerity Works LLC in 1999 to help information technology organizations accelerate and manage their business growth. He is the program co-chairman for the 2004 E-Gov Program Management Summit. He can be reached at lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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