We’re always communicating. Our actions, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, syntax, and yes, our words all communicate something to those with whom we interact.
As we saw in our first post in this series, one of the most common ways we inadvertently disrespect others – disregard for their time – is based in actions that communicate that we don’t care about others’ priorities or perspectives. That may not be our intention, but it is indeed what we communicate.
The same thing happens with verbal communication. We may not “mean” to disrespect others with a certain message, but we can do so all the same, especially if our message is poorly prepared. We’ve all been there: a knee-jerk outburst before we’ve heard the whole story; a terse or snarky email reply to a coworker’s honest question; a hastily written report full of errors. These all communicate a lack of respect.
Each form of verbal communication has its own pitfalls. Spoken communication (especially of the face-to-face variety) is fraught with the dangers of instantaneous emotional expression. It’s much harder to collect our thoughts in the moment when we are in front of someone. It’s easy to get all riled up or to ramble on in a stream of consciousness more associated with our feelings than logical thought.
However, the additional nonverbal tools and immediate feedback available to us in in-person interactions do have the benefit of keeping us more cognizant of how our messages are received. If we happen to be calm, this can help us mitigate, in real time, any unintended messages and correct any misunderstandings.
Written communication, on the other hand, suffers from the loss of (almost) all of the nonverbal cues. That inherent lack often leads to a miscommunication of our meaning. While we may know this instinctively, we seem to get confused (or upset) when someone doesn’t “get” what we were going for. How many times have you thought that if a certain message was spoken instead of written, how much lost time, unnecessary back and forth, confusion, and hurt feelings could have been avoided?
Yet, written communication carries its own inherent benefit. It usually takes longer and thus, allows us more time to collect our thoughts. Sometimes that’s enough to diffuse any emotions we might have unleashed in the moment (a certain presidential Twitter account notwithstanding), but only if we are intentional about it.
So whether you are speaking or writing, a little preparation and empathy will go a long way. Here are a few tips to help keep your workplace communication respectful and goal-oriented.
- Try not to communicate when you’re angry. You may think that you’re merely informing your direct report that she needs to turn her paperwork in on time so that other departments don’t fall behind, but chances are your red face (or triple exclamation points) are communicating something else (that she’s lazy, incompetent, etc).
- Don’t leave your audience guessing. Be clear. When talking/writing about subjects that we know a lot about, it’s easy to overcomplicate it. Resist the urge to sound impressive by sounding confusing; that’s disrespectful. For written communication, a good rule of thumb is to write in such a way that a 5th grader could understand it. Connect the dots for your audience.
- Consider your audience’s perspective. They come with their own experiences and perspectives, and to disregard them makes them feel talked at rather than talked to. Your audience may not have the same background information that you do, and therefore may not understand how you arrived at the conclusions you did. Imagine being in their shoes, and then think about what you would want to hear.
- BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. While not appropriate for everything, it’s a great go-to for many workplace communications, especially written ones. Give your audience the key takeaways at the beginning and then any supporting details after that. This is great because it is clear and gets to the point quickly, wasting no one’s time. It is up to the reader, then, to decide whether they need more detail or not. How respectful is that?!