Are You Hiding?

No matter what your age or generation, nearly all of us have played the game hide and seek. It’s a fun game that can be played inside or outside, and it’s simple enough that anyone can play. Unfortunately, it’s also become a game that we play at work and in life when it comes to communication – especially written communication such as email and text. More specifically, the game is better described as hide and hide – hide behind the written communication to avoid direct conversations and hide all the elements of communication that are lost when you rely on written communication. It’s time to stop playing this communication game and to get back to the most effective form of communication – interpersonal conversation, either in person or at least by phone.

If you’re ready to jump on me and complain that I’m targeting the millennial generation and younger, you’re wrong – I’m targeting all generations because we’ve all retreated to the perceived safety and comfort of written communication.

My offered shift back to direct interpersonal communication is focused on more effective and impactful communication, not perceived easy communication (which we falsely believe to be effective).

This past week I was speaking to an organization’s leadership and management team, and the CEO asked a question about the challenge of relying on email communication. My answer was direct and to the point – email communication has become our default form of communication, and it’s failing as a mode of communication.

Here’s my short list of email (and text) communication issues – I call it the trouble with email, which also applies to texting:

  • Email seems like it’s more effective, but it’s actually only easier (because I don’t need to engage with another person to use it and because it allows me to hide behind it to avoid challenging conversations and issues).
  • Email only uses one element of communication (written words), which has long been shown to only cover 7-10% of all communication. Email fails to include things like context, body language, tone, etc., so email is extremely limiting in its communication range.
  • For some of the reasons listed above, email is subject to wide ranges of interpretation and often leads to misinterpretation. For this reason, a best practice for email is to use it only for positive communication, and not for negative or even neutral communication. Even when the communication is positive, using email or text to praise someone loses the impact of actually hearing another person tell you how great you are or how you’ve been great, including the opportunity to share this praise publicly.
  • Email is selfish in that its perceived benefits are often more focused on the originator of the communication, rather than both the originator and the receiver.
  • Email’s perceived efficiencies fall away once you get past the initial email exchange ( email, one reply), and many email exchanges end up taking up more of people’s time than would have been required using a quick phone call or in person conversation. This game – email tag – is not enhancing our productivity or effectiveness.
  • Email’s effectiveness is extremely limited to situations where the communication is simple (very simple), where it requires little or no context, where there are no likely questions, and where the degree of trust, respect and relationship between the communicating parties is high.

As you can see, email (and text) communication is fraught with pitfalls and landmines, including the opening premise – that we often use email to hide from and avoid challenging conversations. And here’s a funny thing about email – we often engage in hiding email communication when we would be upset if someone else used email to communicate with us in a similar situation and context.

Yes, there is a place for email and even for texting, but it is not and should not be a replacement for direct interpersonal communication (phone or in person). Despite its perceived value in enhancing communication, emails and texts have had the opposite impact in both business and personal communication. I am the first to admit that I too suffer from overusing email and texting; however, I am comfortable in saying that I do not hide behind email. If there’s a difficult conversation that needs to be had, my default is to meet or call. And it’s troubling to me when other people choose email or text to communicate with me about challenging topics or issues.

Are you playing a game with emails and texts? Are you playing hide and hide with these forms of written communication?  Have you fallen into the trap of believing that email and text is the most effective form of communication?

It’s time to re-assess our communication and especially to note the ways that email and text are hindering rather than enhancing our communication objectives and outcomes. If you’re playing hide and hide with email and text, perhaps it’s time to choose a different game when it comes to communication – one that honors the person, the relationship and the objective of clear communication (or quit the games entirely). After all, communication is not supposed to be a game.

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