by: Kaitlin Schneider
The benefits of technology, especially when it comes to remote work, are vast. However, no matter how useful contemporary tools and applications may be, sometimes human beings misconstrue the intended interpretation of a piece of virtual correspondence—be it an email, a quick text, a chat message or even a short comment on a document.
These issues arise often when working remotely. When you’re not speaking face-to-face, you miss out on valuable contextual clues that tell you what’s really going on in a conversation, but there may be more at play than just a lack of context.
In this week’s post, we will discuss some of the reasons text-based correspondence is often interpreted incorrectly, as well as eight ways your employees, or even yourself, can alleviate common missteps in virtual communication.
The Reasons Text-based Messages are Often Misconstrued
Keying into body language can help you ascertain how someone feels. Are they sitting up straight, making eye contact? They’re likely engaged with what you’re saying. If they are slouching with their arms crossed, they may not be—in fact, you may be able to see their eyes starting to glaze over.
While being able to see a person face-to-face allows for a richer connection, the visual aspect is only one part of the message being exchanged—especially when working remotely.
In addition to contextual cues, you need to account for the tone of the conversation and keep in mind your relationship with this person.
What’s being said is important, but you also need to focus on how it’s being said—or how you think it’s being said. Sometimes, a message that the sender may think is positive or cheerful may come across as aggressive to the recipient.
Maybe it’s the way that sender used exclamation marks, or it was the word choice. Either way, now the recipient feels awkward in responding because he or she believes that the message could be negative. Without being able to hear inflection or deflection in a person’s tone of voice, it’s hard to really understand how they are communicating, which makes written miscommunications more likely to happen.
Your relationship, such as how well you know the person on the receiving end of your message, also plays a factor in how you interpret messages. Of course, this relates to any form of communication, but even more so when you are sending an email or an instant message.
Without contextual cues, your exchanges may be filled with communication gaps, as there is no shared level of understanding. You can’t necessarily know what someone else is thinking, and if your connection with an individual is stronger, your emotions may present more of a challenge when interpreting messages from that person.
Those are 2 major reasons why virtual communication can be tricky to navigate, but I have detailed eight ways below that you can alleviate issues before they become major problems.
How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication in Your Online Workplace
1. Count to 10.
If you’ve ever received an email that comes across harshly, you’ve likely rushed to respond as curtly as you thought the sender did. There’s a better way around that, though. Count to ten and think through your reply without your emotions taking control. Your response will be more level-headed, and you are more likely to avoid additional hurt feelings on account of your own response.
2. Consider other interpretations of the message.
“Did you really just mean that?” Is often the first question that comes to mind when you receive a “harsh” email, but instead of jumping to conclusions on your first interpretation, take a moment to consider how the message could be interpreted in different ways. Often, that first emotional reaction gets in the way of your ability to discern the intended meaning of a message.
3. Exercise greater empathy.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. In fact, actually visualize the person sitting in their own office. Consider their home situation as you send or reply to an email. As a manager, encourage team members to share personal tidbits, perhaps even provide home tours of their offices. That way, other employees will have a visual in mind when corresponding with a specific individual.
4. Use the right “language.”
Everyone has their preferred way of communicating, and that doesn’t only apply to texting, phone calls or face-to-face communication.
Some individuals are more numbers-based, while others prefer visuals. Others still need storytelling or personal anecdotes to absorb information. By learning employee preferences, a curt-sounding email may be better understood if recipients know that the person sending that email normally communicates using only numbers or brief messages.
5. Spell things out—no, really.
When we are writing emails or instant messages, we sound thorough to ourselves because as we’re reading it in our own voice. However, when someone else reads that message, it can come across poorly. This is due to amplification bias—as individuals think they are communicating more than enough information when they aren’t conveying enough.
To alleviate this, over communicate, and for high priority communications, use more than one medium. For example, if you talk on the phone about something, follow up with an email of necessary action items.
6. Sometimes, the medium is the message.
Certain communication platforms imply urgency, so be aware of that when sending messages using certain platforms like text or instant messaging. Many people read a text message in a matter of moments when they hear their phone go off, and they will react immediately. So, be mindful of, again, not only what you are saying, but how you are saying it.
7. Delayed responses can equate to poor relationship perceptions.
By not responding to a message quickly (even just to say you will send a more detailed response later) you risk that the person you are corresponding with may perceive that you do not value your shared relationship as highly as they do. Even if you were just busy at the time the message was sent, the individual who sent it still may interpret your delayed response in this manner.
8. Sloppy emails can result in total misunderstandings and costly errors.
Many busy professionals have written terse emails with poorly worded sentences, bad grammar and a complete lack of spellcheck. This may be because those individuals have a packed schedule, but by not taking the time to respond with a polished message, you risk similar perceptions to delayed responses, as well as faulty understandings of what the message says due to its illegibility.
Your best way to avoid virtual miscommunication is establishing basic guidelines and best practices for the workplace.
By setting expectations early on in your remote work setup, your employees will have a better idea of what communication tools to use, and how to use them, potentially avoiding any extra communication missteps that you might encounter along the way. If you have not set up expectations, it is never too late though!