Are Digital Mediums Making Communication Worse?

Sitting down at the dinner table with my son preparing for his pending spelling test sparked a debate in our house. “Dad, my iPod and computer has spell check, so why do I need to learn this.” With great confidence I answered, “… because not every application has spell check.” After a glare he got back to the task at hand. Later that night, the question hung in my head and I started to think about what spelling is. I concluded: spelling is a standardization of the way we communicate in written word. The reason for learning spelling is to make one a better communicator.

Twitter, chat and texting are throwing grammar and spelling out the window, yet our kids can communicate and plan their lives with ease. Even in emails we use the term ‘LOL’ and everyone knows what we are saying. Digital communication seems to be less about spelling and more about understanding each other clearly. The most searched words at the web site are effect and affect, obviously not for spelling but for definition. With more ways to communicate than ever before, are our relationships any better?

In a Duke University study, researchers found that from 1985 to 2004, the percentage of people who said that there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled to 25%; the same study found that overall, Americans had one-third fewer friends and confidants than they did two decades ago. Another recent study, by researchers at the University of Michigan, found that college students today have significantly less empathy than students of generations past did.

It appears our relationships are being impacted by these new ways to correspond; however, communication is still crucial to our success as humans. Unfortunately, digital communication is not going away so how do we communicate better to strengthen our relationships? This month’s CIO letter focuses on achieving just that, better communication.  Here are 7 strategies to improve your skills:

  1. Use Face-to-face meetings – In the world of telecommuting, video conferencing and on-line meetings, face-to-face is happening less and less often. Yet, meeting someone in person is the best way to exchange ideas and thoughts. A new study from Harvard Medical School found that when we collaborate remotely, our work may have less of an impact. Face to face meetings increases trust and allows for stronger bonds and relationships. Non verbal communication is an intricate part of conveying thoughts and opinions which is best done face-to-face.
  2. Think before you speak – With anything, the more you prepare for a meeting or communication event the smoother it will go and more likely it is to have a positive outcome. Write down as many ways you can think of to be a better communicator. Getting mentally set to communicate better is imperative.
  3. Cut bureaucracy in all communications – The more people you have involved in a decision or review process, the more watered down and less effective it will be. Have you ever tried to get consensus with a group of 5 or more on picking a colour or name? As a manager, especially senior management, you have an obligation to reduce the complexity of internal and external communications. You can appoint someone to review internal communications and instruct them to slash as much bureaucracy and complexity as possible.
  4. Something positive – Don’t forget the tried and true method for criticizing someone: positive statement first, then a negative statement followed by a positive one. Studies have found that the negative or criticism is handled better by a person when delivered in this manner of surrounding negative with positive.
  5. Add “No reply necessary” to emails – When you do not require a response, tell the recipients.  We waste hours a year writing “You’re welcome” and “Thank you” emails. Be effective and be happy.
  6. Listen – Get to know your people better. Find out what makes them happy. Show them that you hear what they’re saying. Make them feel heard. Great communication is a about knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen. It’s a two way process.
  7. One or Two word emails – Stop sending short one line emails. Few words can create lots of confusion and often require more emails to clarify, and worse can cause poor or wrong reactions. For example, you are looking for help with a tough decision. You send an email, “Currently we are losing money on our operations; we could lower salaries or lay people off. What are your thoughts?” and the response from the CEO is, “yes go ahead.” What do you do?

The importance of effective listening skills for employees and managers cannot be overemphasized. Everything done in the workplace involves two-way communication: speaking and listening. Two-way communication is critical in the way that it can impact efficiency and effectiveness. Taking small steps will improve communication and ultimately make your job easier. And yes, spelling in school will never go away and with 2,000 new words added to the dictionary this year, there is no shortage of words to learn.

But does bromance really belong in Webster?