“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.“ – Peter F. Drucker, Father of Management Theory
Recently, I read an article discussing how, in addition to basic methods of written and verbal communication, savvy workers also learn to decode non-verbal communication. While I agree that represents a valuable ability and an interesting subject, it struck me just how many different methods of language-based communication the average business has access to nowadays. Less than 30 years ago, we had just a few. All you Millennials now moving into management and starting businesses of your own have access to an amazing array of communication methods, whereas I can still remember the days before CDs and desktop computers (floppies, word processors, and interoffice mail). The next thing you know, I’ll start yelling “Get off my lawn!” to all you young whippersnappers.
Once upon a time, we had telephones with cords and snail mail, fax machines, and courier services in large cities. Faxes existed (some industries used them as early as the mid-1920s), but they cost the Earth, and the baud rate was so slow you could practically walk the message over faster. But in the 1970s, a couple of interesting things happened: telephony started to take off, and scientists at the DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) invented the Internet. The official reason was so government facilities could still communicate even if most network nodes were downed by a widespread disaster, like a nuclear war. UPS and FedEx also popped up during this period to compete effectively with snail mail.
The communication methods used most often in modern business teams include:
- Instant Messaging (IM) and Chat
- Physical documents (snail mail)
- Social networks like Ning
- Bulletin boards
- Phone calls (cell and landline)
- Conference calls
- Video calls
- Document sharing such as Google docs, SharePoint, or OneDrive
- OneNote and Evernote
- Social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook
- Face to face meetings
- Group meetings
- Shared apps
- Yelling across the office (only slightly kidding)
Why Does the Communication Method Matter?
Too many communications options can invoke the Tyranny of Choice—the difficulty of picking something everyone will use. It also disjoints our information and makes people more disorganized, since our to-dos are spread out among multiple inboxes. (Do you ever have the sneaking suspicion that something is falling through the cracks?) We have more information to wade through, as if we didn’t have enough. The method selected isn’t always the best choice either. Have you ever had an email dialogue that goes back and forth five times, and thought, “If we just would have picked up the phone…”
On the positive side, multiple communication channels provide more ways than ever to contact people and share data. This assumes that we remember to check our incoming pipelines, explaining why alerts have become so popular for email and social media. Weigh their usefulness against that distraction factor. Many of us have conditioned ourselves to answer immediately when an alert goes off, even when we’re in the middle of something important.
With multiple methods of access to others, you need to know which method to adopt with specific individuals, especially virtual partners and managers. If your buddy works in Hong Kong, live chat and IM won’t work well if she’s sleeping, but email should. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t care for social media, posting a “Call me” message on Facebook isn’t the best way to gain their attention. Or Jim over there has an email inbox like a black hole—whatever enters never comes out again.
Knowing how someone wants to communicate with you matters most when that someone is your direct supervisor or manager. If they don’t tell you how to communicate and how often, ask. Some executives prefer brief face-to-face meetings every week, while others like detailed emails monthly, or a short call daily. The communication method you use to communicate with someone, whether your leadership or team, may vary according to their personal preference, your team’s selection, or the circumstances.
The communications methods you use may also depend on the results you expect. You typically expect a different result from a quick phone call as opposed to sharing documents on DropBox or Hightail. Similarly, written communication may have different results than verbal communications, so you may use multiple methods, choosing the appropriate one in specific instances. Or use email to send large attachments, but gather physically to discuss them.
The Shape of Things to Come
For every communication method, you have rules and protocols to learn if you want to maximize your efficiency. Politeness and clarity, for example, represent ideals to shoot for in all communication. But few other universals exist in communications protocols, so in the coming weeks, I’ll prepare articles discussing the value of specific communication methods, and the protocols unique to each. Some methods I’ll discuss individually; other very similar types, such as IM and Chat, I’ll discuss in the same article.
© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.