How to Overcome the Illusion of Communication
I’ve seen numerous examples of miscommunication over my forty-year career. Teaching others to communicate more effectively, I’ve heard of many more. Sadly, miscommunication happens all the time. We know what we want to say and what we mean. Then we open our mouths or sit at the keyboard and try to be precise. Typing out words or moving thoughts from our mind to our mouth is just more challenging than it seems. With large or diverse audiences, the situation becomes even more difficult.
Too often, we think we’ve succeeded when we’ve failed. William H. Whyte, Jr. summarized it well:
“The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it.”
Is Anybody Listening?, Fortune, September 1950
Of course, communication requires a sender and a receiver. Both have a role in ensuring any message’s success, and both share the blame when it fails. In some cases, the sender has more to lose with failure, such as selling an idea. In others, receivers want to understand correctly, like when a physician explains a diagnosis. Regardless of who cares more, we can’t change what others do, only how we speak or listen.
When we meet in person in small groups, issues become apparent. We see a furrowed brow and know we’re not making our point. Instinctively, we shake our head or nod in agreement to give active feedback while listening to whoever is speaking. Body language can be a huge part of successful communication.
Much of this is second nature to us. Only when we lack real-time feedback do we genuinely miss it, including speaking to large audiences and every time we hit the email send button.
See no evil, hear no evil
None of this is new, of course. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, studies nonverbal communication and body language. His book Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions (1971) draws on research that bears the importance of nonverbal communication. He found that body language represented a whopping 55% of interpersonal communication. Tone-of-voice was also quite significant at 38%. A speaker’s choice of words falls a very distant third at just 7%.
Mehrabian’s work focuses on feelings and attitudes, so the specific results may not reflect communication in the average workplace. Still, feelings and attitudes don’t check themselves at the door when we go to work. I find the relative importance of body language, tone of voice, and word choice quite helpful. It matches well with what I see almost every day.
Although not the only example, one form of speech helps make my point: sarcasm. It often involves saying the exact opposite of the intent. Sometimes we only understand the true meaning of a phrase through a sarcastic tone or sly facial expression, especially when we have no prior experience with the sender.
Most experts warn against using sarcasm in email. Email is notoriously misunderstood in the first place, seemingly more so as the audience grows. Denying receivers the ability to see and hear, which is inherent to email, makes miscommunication likely. Audio or video meetings might improve the situation, but in-person encounters with immediate feedback remain the most efficient way to ensure communication.
Why it Matters for Teleworkers
Technology facilitates virtually all our communication when we telework. I focus on three distinct forms of telework communication in my work: video meetings, audio meetings, and written communication of many types. Rounded out by collaborative technologies, these are the predominant means for interacting when we work from home. They also neatly align with Mehrabian’s work: video meetings offer some ability to see body language; audio conveys tone-of-voice; email and other typed media (including text and instant messaging) support only word choice.
When work meetings use video, we can at least see some of the participants. Unfortunately, it’s still awkward to observe body language in most video meetings. Some technology allows switching between windows to see the reactions of one or a few people. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of seeing many others. Then there are the many stories of the weird things people do on camera, forgetting they’re broadcasting. There’s simply no workplace counterpart for this behavior, which reminds me of students making faces behind the teacher’s back in class.
As much as we could discuss how video meetings are a poor substitute for in-person meetings, they’re also among the least used work-from-home option. Audio meetings are far more common in my experience, including phone calls. However, in general, both audio and video meetings are still well-behind the frontrunner among workplace communication technologies today.
Most teleworkers use email and instant messaging more than either audio or video meetings. Offering only words, punctuation, and the occasional emoticon, they deny body language and tone of voice. Based on Mehrabian’s work, we shouldn’t be surprised when massive miscommunication results.
What Can We Do To Improve?
As teleworkers, we’re already at a disadvantage compared to those working in the office. We don’t hear or see coworkers, managers, and key decision-makers as often. Perhaps worse, they can’t see us. As the adage goes, out of sight, out of mind.
I recommend developing or enhancing personal attributes that our employers value. These including network-building, focusing on organizational needs, exercising leadership, building influence, and working well with others. All require excellent communication skills. The illusion of communication is not an option for us to excel in our jobs as teleworkers. The illusion will not be enough to keep our jobs. We need to become the best communicators we can, given the media’s limitations that stand between us and success.
Addressing the illusion of communication won’t be easy. We can’t wave our magic wands and become exemplary employees. We can, however, become better speakers and writers, and we can get better at listening and reading. Because there are communication barriers inherent to each of the media we use often, we can also learn to mitigate and minimize them. We need to improve our performance across each incrementally and every medium: email, instant messaging, audio meetings, and video meetings. I’ll write more on each of these in the coming months, so stay tuned.
Communication is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon that’s more complex when facilitated by technology. We may have taken communication for granted while working in the office, but, as teleworkers, we no longer can.
Thanks for reading!