10 Digital Miscommunications — and How to Avoid Them

10 Digital Miscommunications — and How to Avoid Them

In light of COVID-19 (and all of our heightened stress levels), it’s crucial to take steps to avoid miscommunication when working as part of a virtual team. How do you avoid sending a passive aggressive Slack (“let’s chat.”) or email (“just bumping this up in your inbox!”)? How do you hit the right tone over text? The author offers ten tactical tips for staying connected and remaining supportive of your team, even when you’re not in the same location.

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As COVID-19 spreads across the world, more and more of us are starting to work from home. In light of this global shift (and all of our heightened stress levels), it’s crucial to take steps to avoid miscommunication when working as part of a virtual team.

We’ve spent the last four years studying the science of emotions and their intersection with our lives at work. We’ve spoken to thousands of workers globally, and one of the most common questions people ask us surrounds just this — how to best communicate in the digital age. How do you avoid sending a passive aggressive Slack (“let’s chat.”) or email (“just bumping this up in your inbox!”)? How do you hit the right tone over text? Did you go too far by adding that exclamation point?

Below are our top tactical tips for staying connected and remaining supportive of your team, even when you’re not in the same location.

Emojis can help us express tone, meaning, and emotional cues. If Liz adds a Winking Face with Tongue on Apple iOS 13.3 to her “Don’t be late!” text, she makes it easier for Mollie to see she’s joking. But an outpouring of emojis, especially when you don’t know the other person well, can undermine your professionalism. It’s best to wait until you have an idea of how the other person will receive emojis before sending a slew of smileys. As a rule of thumb, one emoji per email or slack message is appropriate — unless it’s the very first time you’re communicating with this person, in which case, it’s better to leave them out.

Typos reveal that we were in a rush or heightened emotional state when we hit send (or that we’re the boss, and don’t need to care about typos). Researcher Andrew Brodsky describes typos as emotional amplifiers: if Mollie sends Liz an angry email filled with typos, Liz will imagine Mollie hammering out that email in a blind rage and perceive the message as really angry. Even if you’re in a rush, it’s best to spend those extra two minutes proofreading your work, or better yet, read it out loud to catch any typos your eyes quickly skip over when reading it in your head.

Typos are not the only thing you should be proofing your messages for. Brian Fetherstonhaugh, the Worldwide Chief Talent Officer at The Ogilvy Group, told us that he frequently asks employees if they have ever successfully defused an emotional issue via email. The answer is inevitably no. But when he asks the same group if they’ve ever inflamed an issue via email? “Everyone puts their hand up,” he said. Always re-read what you’ve written before hitting send to make sure your message is clear and conveys the intended tone. Sending “Let’s talk” when you mean “These are good suggestions, let’s discuss how to work them into the draft” will make the recipient unnecessarily anxious. It’s easy for one-line emails or slack messages to be perceived as passive aggressive in tone. Imagine how you’d feel if you got a message that said, “Per my last email, just following up” or “Help me understand.”

Responding “Okay.” with a period can come across as more negative in tone than “Okay” without a period. Adding a period adds a finality to your statement and heightens the negative emotion. It can communicate, “This conversation is over” rather than “Okay, sure, we’re in agreement.” As you get to know someone, pay attention to their punctuation style. You may find there are people you work with who always add periods after the word okay, and so you can stop overanalyzing their punctuation.

We’re most likely to interpret ambiguity as negative when we’re texting or emailing with people we don’t know well or with more senior colleagues. Say Liz emails Mollie, whom she knows very well, “Your email to the editor could have been better.” Mollie will take the email at face-value. But if Mollie receives the same email from her boss or a new colleague, she may feel anxious, and think that her email was so egregious that she’ll never be allowed to email an editor again. Using video conference when you begin working with someone new helps build trust. In general, seeing each other’s facial expressions will allow you to better read between the lines, chit chat, and develop genuine relationships. After you know the person, you can use email more frequently.

At Trello, a project management software company, if even one person on a team works remotely, the group will jump on a video call; this ensures everyone feels included and makes it less likely for information to be lost. Studies show that around 65% of communication is non-verbal. When you’re not on video, you’re missing emotional cues that come from facial expression and body language. We acknowledge that video won’t always be possible, but it’s best to make it a habit when you are able.

Don’t get us wrong — we love how informal Slack is, but it is by far the easiest form of digital communication to fire out a not-very-thought-through message. You’re just a quick message away from asking someone, “Can you just give this a quick glance?” or “Could you add your ideas to this document?” By sending these messages, though, you’re dumping work on other people. The real-time nature of Slack means that people interpret your requests as urgent, and feel they need to respond right away. So, before sending a request that will take time, ask, “Is this a good time?” If you don’t need a response right away, say, “No rush, but could you help me with something when you have a chance?” And if someone has “Do Not Disturb” mode on, respect it.

If an email makes you enraged, anxious, or euphoric, wait until the next day to write back. Even better, talk face-to-face when you’ve calmed down. Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll be able to better articulate your emotions, and the needs behind your emotions, rather than just your immediate reactions. When you do reply, re-read your draft through the other person’s eyes. It might be easier to imagine how your reader will interpret your email if you first send it to yourself. (Additional tip: always leave the “To:” field blank until you’re ready to hit send; a friend of ours lost a job offer because he accidentally sent out a half-baked salary negotiation email).

An in-person request is more than thirty times more successful than an emailed one. Research shows people see email asks as untrustworthy and non-urgent. If you do enter into an email negotiation, it helps to first schmooze in person, over video chat, or on the phone. In an experiment (titled “Schmooze or Lose”) that pitted MBA students against each other, half were given only their counterpart’s name and email. The other half were shown a photograph of the other person and told to talk about hobbies, job plans, and hometowns before negotiating. Seventy percent of the first group was able to reach a deal, compared to almost everyone in the second.

“I am away from the office and checking email intermittently. If your email is not urgent, I’ll probably still reply. I have a problem,” tweeted the parody account Academics Say. Even if you write “don’t read/respond to this until tomorrow/Monday,” chances are the reader will still think about your email all weekend (and might even feel pressure to respond immediately). Try saving the email to your draft folder or schedule it to send later.

Most digital miscommunication happens because we don’t have access to the non-verbal cues, including tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, that give us valuable emotional context when we’re discussing in person. So these tips can help, but the fail-safe solution is to pick up the phone or get on a video call.

Liz Fosslien is the Head of Content at Humu, a company that nudges people towards better work habits, unlocking the potential of individuals, teams, and organizations. She has designed and led sessions related to emotions at work for audiences including TED, LinkedIn, Google, Viacom, and Spotify. Liz’s writing and illustrations have been featured by The Economist, Freakonomics, and NPR. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.

Mollie West Duffy is an organizational development expert and consultant. She was previously an organizational design lead at global innovation firm IDEO and a research associate for the Dean of Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria and renowned strategy professor Michael E. Porter. She’s written for Fast Company, Quartz, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Entrepreneur, and other digital outlets. Liz and Mollie are the authors of the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @lizandmollie.

10 Digital Miscommunications — and How to Avoid Them

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