Through the Tempered Glass: 4 tips for effective communication in our modern world
I want to talk about the device through which you are reading this post. Look at the edges – are you and I connecting through a computer screen? Or am I reaching you through a mobile device like a tablet or a smart phone?
These devices have made communication both much better and much worse for society. Obviously, they are tools for connection because we have found each other. Information can be shared with thousands of people around the world, freeing us from the common bounds of time and location.
But we also know that these devices can greatly undermine real, authentic communication. And I’m not just talking about the scene we have all witnessed of people supposedly “together” and yet every single one busy with their smartphone.
Our modern devices actually strip away some of the ways we were biologically designed to communicate, and that can get us in trouble quickly.
In my work as a leadership consultant and coach, I see this problem all of the time. Good intentions often backfire when they pass through the tempered glass of our devices, much like Alice’s world shifted when she stepped through the looking glass.
To counter this, I like to teach people about “digital competence.” A set of skills that will help you communicate more effectively in both professional and personal settings.
Tip #1: Tune in to the 4 levels of communication
Communication actually occurs on four different levels. One level is verbal communication, which occurs in the form of words, either spoken or written. This includes modern media like email, text messages, and kinds we have yet to develop. If words are involved, it’s verbal.
Then there is the paraverbal level, which is how the words are used. For example, shouting or all capital letters conveys an intensity that adds more meaning to the words themselves. Other aspects of paraverbal communication include tone of voice, silences and even interrupting others.
The third level is nonverbal communication, such as body language and eye contact. This kind can only be detected by seeing the sender. Interestingly, humans are especially sensitive to non-verbal communication and we can generally sense when someone is being authentic.
Finally, we have the extraverbal level, which is meaning conveyed beyond the words. This may have to do with time or place of the communication, the power level of the sender, and other aspects that also can convey meaning.
Tip #2: Give your brain all the data that you can
The problem with our modern devices is that it can strip away a lot of the data we need to read communication accurately. Sure, the words come through in email and texts, but we lose so much more when those other levels of communication go away.
Our sensory nerves and brain structures are built to read the subtle cues that come from in-person interactions. We can detect small micro-muscular changes in facial expressions, hear subtle nuances in vocal cues, and we can read those all-important non-verbal cues.
For example, neuro-anthropologists believe that our blushing mechanism was a powerful way to convey information like, “I know I messed up—don’t attack me.” While we can use emoticons to add some of that back in, it’s not toing to work as well as how our bodies are designed to function, which is through in-person interactions.
If you must communicate digitally, add back in what is lost. Use emoticons and more words to give context and meaning to your words.
If there is a possibility of miscommunication, give your brain all the data you can. A phone call is better than an email because you can hear vocal cues, and video calls are even better because you get all that visual data back.
And if you start to have a conflict, immediately get in person as quickly as you can, or least on a video call if you are too far from each other.
Tip #3: Close the intent-impact divide
The intent-impact divide is the distance between what the sender intended to convey in his/her communication and how it was actually received by the other person. The receiver can never have access to our feelings, thoughts, and reasoning that went in to how we crafted our message—only the message itself. And many times, the message has a different impact than the sender wanted.
This intent-impact divide is at the heart of a lot of communication that goes badly. And this divide can be furthered widened in our modern era of global communication because culture and language play a central role in how we interpret meaning.
Certainly, language issues can change the meaning of words for both sender and receiver. Even native speakers of the same language don’t always use the same words the same way.
In addition, every culture has different norms for communication. For example, how respect is conveyed or what signals dishonesty.
Even how we craft our messages is culturally bound. For many cultures, communication is linear with the sender getting to the point of their message quickly. While other cultures use a circular style where a variety of information is weaved together to build up to the point at the end.
There are so many moving parts and complicating factors that we need to be extra attentive to the intent-impact divide. And it’s really the sender’s responsibility to close it. If your message is not landing the way you had hoped, it’s up to you to do something different.
You can start by clearly sharing your intent up front. If you state your goal, you increase the chances the receiver will hear it as you mean it. You might say something like, “The reason I am calling you is to apologize for how the meeting went.” Or, “The purpose for this email is to confirm that you’re coordinating the trade show.”
Then look for signs of how your message landed and if it’s not what you thought, explore further.
Tip #4: A picture is worth a thousand words
We’ve all heard this adage and yet it is more profound than ever in this time where millions of words fly across the internet every second.
Biologically, our brain “thinks” in pictures. We are visual creatures and if you consider our evolution as a species, we know that we saw the saber-toothed tiger, and then created a sound (word) for it, long before we ever came up with written language. Early people wrote in pictures, as evidenced by cave drawings that pre-date written words by millions of years.
Even today, babies mirror that process. When they see a housecat, they first make their own sound, and then learn the word “cat” from adults. And that happens months before they learn the squiggly lines that make letters and put them together correctly to spell C-A-T.
In fact, this biological trait is why so many of us are drawn to video-based learning, like what you find at Desk-Yogi or lynda.com. Watching another person do something inherently aligns with how we are designed to learn, making it easer and faster than reading the symbols of written language.
Communication is always enhanced when we can add images. And here is where our devices can help us. We can take a screen shot of something and send it along with our written message. Or we can make an audio or video recording to show as well as tell.
This is especially true when language or cultural barriers might impede communication. Pictures add an instant clarity that aids in closing that intent-impact gap.
All of these tips can be used even when you are on the receiving end of communication. You can use them to ask questions, share your own message, and participate in closing the divide through clear communication.
Personally, I love all the benefits that our devices bring to connecting us. How else might you and I have this moment when we might never meet in person? There is no doubt that we are closer and more connected to our global family than ever before.
And with a little judicious effort for how we communicate through our devices, we can yield all the amazing benefits they have to offer while tempering their pitfalls.