The workplace today looks mighty different than it did 20 years ago. Teams are often scattered, with some (or even all) employees working far away from each other. Digital communication is now woven into our everyday lives, with chat and text messaging keeping everyone connected.
One side effect of this profound communication transformation is, unfortunately, miscommunication.
One report estimates that $37 billion is lost yearly due to communication barriers, employee misunderstandings and miscommunication. Things get even more serious in a life-and-death industry like health care, where communication failures were linked to 1,744 deaths in a span of five years.
Communication barriers at your organization might not kill anyone, but they can still cost time and money you can’t easily afford.
Why does text-based communication lend itself more to miscommunication? Look at these reasons:
Lack of context
In a chat or text message, you don’t have the benefit of the context in which a message was sent.
Is the sender at home, working on a Sunday night when he or she’s supposed to be having dinner with the family?
Is the person who just sent you a chat message suffering from a cold?
Is he or she in a noisy office or busy airport having trouble concentrating on the message?
It’s hard to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when we can’t see those shoes. Some people and teams are more transparent about what’s going on in their lives, but even the most transparent teams risk miscommunication when people aren’t in the same room.
Missing body language
In text-based communication, body language is nonexistent. You can’t see facial expressions, hear tone of voice, or note the person’s posture or other nonverbal communication.
We humans rely heavily on body language to interpret what we’re hearing. UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian’s studies in the 1960s found that 93 percent of all communication is non-verbal.
Without the benefit of body language, you run the risk of misinterpreting communication. You don’t see that wink after a sarcastic statement. You don’t know how to interpret that exclamation point—is it excitement or anger? You don’t know if a one-word statement of acknowledgement—like “noted”—means anything more.
Lack of emotional content
The lack of emotional cues can also increase the odds of miscommunication in chat and text messages. When you’re face to face with someone, you can see and feel how they interpret your words. You can more quickly grasp that they respond better to quantitative information, or that they understand concepts better through a story or an anecdote.
In text-based communications, it’s sometimes possible to glean emotional preferences, but it takes time and more trial and error. Miscommunication is almost inevitable when someone interprets a curt message as angry instead of simply written in a hurry.
And no, emojis do not effectively replace emotions in chat and text messages.
Increased conflict (or lack of it)
The anonymity of text can also mean more conflict. It’s easier to confront someone whose face you can’t see and to let your emotional state color your response when you can’t look in someone’s eyes.
People are also much less likely to confront others or disclose unwelcome information when their name or face might get associated with it—meaning you might not get negative news you need it.
Because digital text communications don’t happen in real time, delays can wreak havoc on understanding.
If you don’t answer back quickly, senders may wonder why you’re not responding. They might think you’re ignoring them or that you’re angry. Add to those issues the delay in which messages are sent and received, and you have a recipe for miscommunication.
How to avoid miscommunications over chat and text
Here are six tips I’ve gathered over my many years of using text-based messaging with my teams both near and far:
1. Keep in mind that the medium is a message
Text messaging and chat both imply a sense of urgency. Communicating with these mediums conveys a message in and of itself: “Look at this right now, wherever you are!”
If the message isn’t urgent, either send an email instead or preface your message with “Not urgent” to take pressure off the recipient.
2. Don’t use text or chat for lengthy conversations
Text and chat should be used for quick conversations, like this one:
It’s too easy to miss important messages in a long text thread.
Keeping track of a conversation is easier when it’s done through email, with a phone call or in an in-person meeting. That way you can be sure you don’t miss anything and that you answer (or at least address) all the questions that arise.
3. Don’t leave people hanging
Remember, text and chat messages imply urgency. Unless otherwise noted, assume the sender needs a reply quickly.
If you can’t give the message your full attention or a prompt response, reply with something like, “I’m tied up right now. I’ll get back to you.”
That is a bit like voicemail that way—and there’s a reason. The message sender is a human being, and we humans like to know we’re being heard. On the phone, people feel heard when they can leave a voicemail. On chat or text, your “I can’t respond right now” message does the same.
The timeliness of your response is an indication of the quality of your relationship, too. When you don’t respond promptly—even if it’s to say you can’t respond right now—the recipient is left wondering if you value him or her.
But here’s a caveat: When you say you’ll respond later, make sure to follow through and actually get back to him or her. If you don’t, the sender may lose trust over time, and those “I can’t respond right now” messages won’t mean anything in the long run.
4. For sensitive conversations, pick up the phone
Don’t make text and chat your main medium for praise; it won’t mean as much as a phone call or in-person pat on the back. And never reprimand over text or chat. For kudos and warnings alike, pick up the phone.
If communication barriers and miscommunications will cost you money, time or an employee’s happiness—pick up the phone.
If it’s critical to the success of a project, pick up the phone.
If it will make or break a relationship, pick up the phone.
5. Stay on topic
Because text and chat are so quick and easy to use, some people tend to send rapid-fire messages one after the other. This doesn’t give the other person ample time to answer the previous message, and we all know how quickly threads can get garbled.
Do yourself a favor and address one topic at a time.
6. Give people the benefit of the doubt
Many communication barriers and misinterpretations happen because we doubt the message sender’s intentions. What if you assume instead that the message sender was happy when they sent the message?
It’s easy to read too much into a text or chat message and go way beyond the actual intentions of the message. That’s just human nature. We try to create context where it doesn’t exist, and most of us lean toward negativity when creating that context.
Management scholar Kristin Byron believes that misinterpretation comes in two forms: neutral or negative. We tend to dampen positive messages, making them more neutral. We also assume the worst in questionable messages, making them seem more negative.
This might be human nature, but we do have some control over it. Make a conscious decision to give message senders the benefit of the doubt. Assume they were happy when they sent the message. It’ll save you a lot of grief.
Digital communication empowers your workforce—when used wisely
Chat and text messaging are connecting teams across the globe. This communication technology is a good thing. We just need to use it wisely to make sure our communication is clear.
These best practices are a start toward making sure everyone on your team stays on the same page.
Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder/president of Axero Solutions and author of the forthcoming book “Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement.” A version of this post originally appeared on the Axero Solutions blog.