In this day and age, we have myriad modes of communication. Often, we default to what’s easiest, or what we know best, not what’s most effective.
1:1 in person meetings yield the richest conversations. You see everything—and body language speaks volumes. At the same time, it’s the costliest. It can sometimes require much more time to get together in person (something that inspired me to write about my productivity hack of no longer “doing” coffee).
Video calls have gained in popularity thanks to better and now ubiquitous inexpensive technology. They are purported to offer the same richness as an in-person meeting, but they always leave me a bit cold. I don’t find them to be much of a step up from the phone in terms of humanness and I do find them to be a recipe for awkwardness as people are looking at themselves instead of someone else on the screen. And even more irritating to me, is the time often wasted at the beginning of the meeting getting everybody connected and operational.
Phone calls have taken a back seat to newer tools that reduce the need to schedule, but they should not be forgotten as they are still highly effective. They yield true interaction, where you can hear someone’s thoughts in real time and ask questions on the fly. The downside: you still have to align on a time to get together, which takes coordination, and can be difficult for many who have already overbooked schedules.
Email solves the problem of aligning schedules, but it’s not the best mode for meaningful discussion. Additionally, tone can sometimes be misconstrued and there are some communications that you do not want to put in writing.
Texting is an interesting mix of asynchronous and synchronous communication. I love seeing the three gray dots on my iPhone, knowing someone is in the midst of responding, and also appreciate that these messages do not have to be fielded right away.
Whatever the mode works for whatever moment, there are ways to not only be effective, but gracious. Whenever I hear a ring or a ping I worry that the incoming request could derail what I’m currently working on. That’s why every time my cell phone rings I feel like I’m going to break out in hives. This reaction is the collateral damage from working at eBay in the early 2000s when for a few years my phone was ringing off the hook with bad news, and at all hours .
Of course, I appreciate the immediacy of a phone call to impart bad news—bad news doesn’t get better with age—but I have learned that there are several ways to ensure these communications go more smoothly for everyone involved.
Be mindful of someone else’s time. One person I worked with constantly and consistently called me at the most inconvenient times, often catching me during dinner, when I was not as receptive to ironing out work problems. We talked about this and came up with a new plan that led with, “I need to chat; what works for you for a 30-45 minute call in the next day or the next few hours ?” Remember: you can never expect that the time that works for you will be the same time that works for someone else. Unless it’s an emergency, schedule it.
Make sure they are available. If you do call someone off schedule, make sure they are receptive to hearing from you. The first thing I say after “Hello,” is “Are you interruptible?” If they aren’t, we schedule for a time that’s more convenient. This holds true for in-person encounters too. I learned this at eBay where we all sat in cubicles and everyone, out in the open, was vulnerable to being pulled into a conversation at any moment. We learned to ask, “Do you have a moment?” before launching into an entire dialogue, or worse, diatribe! The culture made it possible to do this. It was fair to say no, which reduced the threat of unwanted encounters.
Consider the whole ecosystem. Be aware that you are not the only one with many swim lanes—everyone has a calendar filled with staff meetings, project meetings, 1:1s. Calling a meeting and disrupting what’s already in place creates a lot of churn for everyone else. Be considerate of that before you demand a time that may impact others.
Make sure everyone understands and appreciates the urgency of an emergency. If the house is on fire, 911 better answer, whether they’re in the middle of dinner or not. But never play this card when it’s not a true emergency or, like the boy who cried wolf, it won’t be very effective, when you are pulling the fire alarm for real.
Be crisp with your communications. If you can go over something in 5 minutes don’t take 35 minutes.Enough said.
A word on introductions: I often get asked to connect somebody to someone else. I’m “Action Jackson” and in my want to get this out of my inbox, so, in the past, I quickly sent it on, without asking permission first. A colleague pointed out it was “a tad rude” as they might not want to talk to the person, but they were not given that option. I’ve since changed my strategy to send a private note to the person first asking if they would like to be connected. It’s more work for me because it often requires a second note introducing them, but they feel better having been asked and it often yields a better reaction because they are more prepared and invested.
By following a few simple practices, you can make every interaction as rich and powerful as possible. There’s a grace you have to employ when it comes to communication and if you do so, you will see your encounters become more effective and rewarding.