Saturday, April 22, 2017

Rushed Communications

A friend overheard a telephone conversation I was having. I ended the conversation with, “OK, bye”, and promptly hit the hang up button, thus ending the call. My friend then said to me that I had hung up the phone too abruptly, not allowing the other person to say goodbye properly. A short discussion ensued. I quickly pointed out that one of the results of hearing only one side of a conversation is that you are not in a position to make such a judgment. My rather tenacious friend was relentless in his insistence that I had been rude. My response is to write this column, which addresses the dynamic of communication.

Clear communication is crucial to maintaining a healthy society. In our rushed schedules, clarity can take a back seat to efficiency. While efficiency has its place, if our message is not clear – and more importantly, if our tone is in any way dismissive – our efficiency will have been wasted. Overhearing a phone call does not provide us with the perspective to be able to assess clarity or tone. Nonetheless, my friend raised a very good point, and in rerunning the overheard conversation in my mind, I suddenly realized that perhaps I had been too quick with hanging up the phone, thereby not allowing the person on the other end of the line to offer his own goodbye.

When speaking on the phone, we cannot see facial expressions, hand gestures or any body language. Therefore, we rely on spoken words, and the tone in which they are delivered to arrive at our interpretation and understanding of the message. The written word presents even further challenges to clarity because we cannot hear the tone of voice. The importance of tone cannot be overstated. There are even software programs designed to measure tone. Delivering a message with compassion and understanding can sound far different from one filled with disappointment or sorrow.

We know how we feel when we receive an email or letter leaving us pondering the real intention of the message. We scratch our heads and often overthink what the author had in mind. Given the way the human brain is wired for safety and survival, our minds tend to reel with negative thoughts, almost none of which ever actually happen. Similarly, how often do we hang up the phone, still wondering what just happened during that call?

When we speak on the phone, we need to be more mindful of completing our thoughts clearly, and to be sure the other person has the same opportunity. Take a few moments to say a proper goodbye. After all, communicating by telephone is different than by email, text, or letter. Many of us receive unwanted solicitation calls and we have slipped into the habit of the quick hang up. We must be sure not to engage in that same speedy exit with our friends or business colleagues. Slowing down can be challenging. However, if we want to be sure our intentions are properly and appropriately conveyed, slowing down can be very helpful.

We must also focus on the clarity of our message. Have you noticed that people don’t quite understand what you mean? They have trouble following directions because the instructions could be interpreted in more than one way. We make the assumption that people understand what we mean without giving them the full story. This is another example of just how dangerous assumptions can be. Furthermore, not only are directions not followed correctly, in order to make things right, we must invest our time – sometimes quite a lot of it.

This is a two way street, to be sure. If someone asks me to complete a task, it is incumbent on me to be sure I understand the directions. “Oh, I thought he would have known” is a dangerous presumption. Only we know what is going on in our minds. We do not know what others are experiencing or thinking at the moment unless they tell us or we ask. Likewise, if we do not communicate clearly what is on our mind, no one will know. We are not psychics. We may have intuition, but this is not a substitute for clearly stated facts.

We will miscommunicate from time to time. We are human beings and making mistakes is part of our condition. When we do mess up, we need to have compassion for ourselves and for anyone who has been swept up in the whirlwind. We need to be forgiving and make allowances for misunderstandings that result from acting on assumptions. Let’s not be so quick to find fault with how others may have ‘done us wrong’ when their intentions were likely quite the opposite. Most importantly, we must take responsibility for any misunderstandings. Taking the high road, and shouldering more of the responsibility than we may feel is actually ours, will place us in a position of strength. From here, we can bring things back in balance. 

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