Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Communication Methods

After a struggle communicating with my taciturn father-in-law, I've made some observations about forms of communication. In my professional and personal experience, some forms of communication are more effective then others.

1) Document sharing/ emails. In many cases, this is the only effective means of communication. It is certainly the most flexible and is almost always available as an option. It gives you time to compose your thoughts and make sure everything is covered. In addition, you can read and respond at a time when you have the time to do so in the right frame of mind. It also allows for the opportunity to reduce emotion. I'm not talking about quick notes - I'm talking about documents that you have taken time to write and proof read at least once. Although it does occasionally need to be followed up with face to face or phone call, just to confirm understanding. Also, if it gets beyond 3 or 4 replies, then something is not working correctly. Usually it's because someone isn't taking the time to think about what they say rather then a problem with the method of communication. Anyone who thinks that E-mails are never the best way to address an issue have clearly not learned how to use the medium correctly. They just haven't figured it out yet. Or are just plain poor communicators, no matter the medium. Or possibly have some sort of technical hangup or legitimate reading disorder, in which case I'm sorry and I hope you find some way of surviving the digital age. Emails are almost always a safe and effective option. Sometimes less proficient users let a thread go on too long, can't express themselves clearly, or clutter up inbox with unneccesary information. However, in the hands of an experienced, concientious user, emailing is by far the best way to address any issue more complicated then what to eat for dinner tonight. It is difficult to imagine anyone being successful in business or in life without learning effective email techniques.

In my experience as a business professional, emails and document sharing are the backbone of all communication. Any other form of communication is supplemental and secondary to email/document sharing.

2) face to face, preferably with Whiteboard and/or computer available. This is usually the most effective, unless you are talking about something complicated and/or involving multiple steps with each step requiring research and thought. In that case, face to face will not work very well unless it has been preceded and followed up by document sharing/emails. In some cases, with certain individuals, emails work better because they can't think on their feet and/or emotional distance is required. The only reason face to face is superior to email is because it allows you to see body language, gestures and experience the "vibe" of the conversation, as well as allow a back and forth to help make sure the message is understood. Even that advantage can be cancelled out if someone is difficult to read or if the issue requires careful thought.

3) instant messaging - very effective for informal communication. It has the back and forth of a conversation, while allowing time for composing thoughts and/or breaks for when you are otherwise occupied. It's flaws include a lack of nuances like sarcasm and a tendency to type lazily or poorly.

4) video conference - marginal improvement on a phone call, but usually plagued by technical problems and usually the first 5-10 minutes of video conference is spent trying to get everything to work. Assuming it's even available as an option.

5) phone calls - only to be used for quick questions or when nothing else is available. If it can't be covered in less then 5 minutes and with less then 3 or 4 inquiries, then it shouldn't be a phone call. It does work well as follow up to email or face to face, but is pretty much worthless as primary means of communication. It does not allow you time to compose your thoughts, does not capture nuances very well, does not allow the use of visual aids, and can be difficult to even carry on a basic conversation due to technical difficulties and/or distractions in the environment. Not to mention if either party has some sort of accent or speech pattern that makes it difficult to understand. Basically, only to be used when communicating with someone that is still stuck in the 1980's or earlier. Be prepared to deal with multiple failed attempts before understanding is achieved (if it ever is). If you're stuck using the phone to communicate, your primary goal should be to either conclude quickly and/or setup some other means of communicating. Unless of course, you're not actually trying to get anything accomplished and just desire to talk for no particular reason.

6) facebook/twitter/online forums/blogs. Obviously not intended to be a serious form of communication and cluttered with tons of garbage. But occasionally can be effective, if you manage to find the right posting.

The incident with my father-in-law is the perfect example of how emails are extremely effective and phones are completely worthless. We are trying to plan a fishing trip. After a couple of phone calls where nothing was accomplished and nothing was resolved, I took the time to compose an email sharing all my concerns and ideas. It took me a couple of hours to compose it and I managed to cover everything. He responded with a simple - I'm not big on emails, call me. THAT made me furious! I was fuming about that for the entire day (still am, I supposse). So we had a few phone conversations, had the wives deal with it instead of us, and still couldn't get it resolved. So he finally read my email that I wrote and took the time to compose a response. We still don't have everything resolved, because that man has issues with planning in addition to communicating, but I finally know where he's coming from and what he is thinking (somewhat). I feel sorry for anyone he contacts in his professional capacity. But maybe it's just me he can't communicate with.

I admit - personal preference does play a role. I am in love with the written word. It is how I best process information. I struggle with verbal communication, both giving and receiving. It's just so difficult to figure out what is really being said and there is so much noise and irrelevancy that has to be filtered out on the fly. And I am completely uncomfortable with using the phone. I almost always screw up a phone conversation and will put it off as long as possible because I dread that stupid contraption. I would rather go to a store and find it closed then call ahead. I have been known to make phone calls at a time when I expect to get voicemail so that I can control my message without getting confused. That gives us both time to think and compose a response. I will do everything I can to avoid a phone call. For instance, just the other day, I was ordering something online and had a question that wasn't clear on the website. I called the order by phone number, asked my question, and then hung up and continued my order online. I have been called by my congressman several times to participate in a phone based town hall. I would love to participate in a Town hall, but no way would I do it over the phone. (Besides, he is a clueless conservative Republican, I could talk to an alien from Mars and have a better chance of being listened to and understood). Basically, the phone is one of those inventions that I wish had never been invented or that I wish would stop working now that superior methods of long distance communication have been invented.

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