Avoiding Miscommunication in a Digital World

Nick Morgan, a communications expert and speaking coach, says that while email, texting, and Slack might seem like they make communication easier, they actually make things less efficient. When we are bombarded with too many messages a day, he argues, humans are likely to fill in the gaps with negative information or assume the worst about the intent of a coworker’s email. He offers up a few tips and tricks for how we can bring the benefits of face-to-face communication back into the digital workplace. Morgan is the author of the book, Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.

Download this podcast

TRANSCRIPT

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.

We all know that between emails, texts, Slack and more, the way we communicate with our co-workers has changed enormously. That’s brought benefits – like the ability to work remotely or on teams spread across the globe, the ability to have things in writing versus forgetting what we said in a phone call, and the ability to send thousands of messages a day.

We tend to think of these new forms of communication as incredibly efficient. But they also often cause more problems than they solve, says Nick Morgan.

NICK MORGAN: Actually, a face-to-face meeting is very efficient in one important sense: that is, we humans care about each other’s intent. Intent is very hard to convey except face-to-face, where it’s easy and effortless. We’ve evolved for millennia to be able to understand each other’s intent quickly and effectively face-to-face. And so think of that as a different kind of efficiency.

Nick Morgan is a speaking coach and an expert in communication, and he has some tricks and tips on how we can make up for some of the deficiencies that come along with high tech communication.

He’s the author of the new book “Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.” Nick, thanks for talking with us.

NICK MORGAN: It’s a pleasure, Sarah. Glad to be with you.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I think a lot of people would say, yeah, there are downsides to electronic communication, but you know Skype and texting – you know, we have more ways to communicate with each other more cheaply and easily than ever before. So why is it so bad?

NICKL MORGAN: Yeah. Let’s start by acknowledging the magnificent benefits. It’s really cheap. It’s much less friction. The unintended consequence of that, of course, is information overload. And one of the immediate problems of information overload is that we then start to have to triage all that information that we’re getting and so we skim more and more. We look at it less and less closely. And we respond more and more quickly.

And so one of the results of that is that our responses become less and less clear, more and more prone to misunderstanding, and also liable to create more problems than they solve. The research shows that we both think we’re better at expressing ourselves in email and other virtual forms than we actually are, and we also think we’re better at understanding other people than we actually are.

The real underlying problem here is a lack of feedback. We’re not getting the kinds of feedback that we’re used to getting, that we get easily enough face-to-face. And even face-to-face, of course, it’s possible misunderstand people and mistake their intent.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Is it any better if you’re on the phone? Because I know a lot of people will say, “Oh, you know, just pick up the phone and call the person and it will save you so much time.” Is that actually true?

NICK MORGAN: Well, I talked to one neuroscientist who said, when I asked him, “So if email is so bad, what should we do about it?” And he actually said, “Pick up the phone and read your email to the other person.” That’s better because at least you could stop and say, “Did you understand that? How did that affect you?”

But no, there are problems with audio conferences too. One of the issues which is fairly subtle, is that when you convey something over the audio conference, it condenses your voice in a way that strips out what we call overtones and undertones. So the basic pitch at which you’re speaking comes through, but the overtones and undertones that gives you your voice its particular quality – so that you can tell your voice from your mother’s voice, from your colleague’s voice – those tend to get stripped out or condensed.

Now one of the things that gets conveyed in especially the undertones is human emotion, human intent. And so even that becomes less clear – even though we are speaking perhaps live with somebody over a phone, still, their intent is less clear to us than it would be if we were face-to-face.

SARAH GREEN CARMIACHEL: So I’m wondering though, is there any benefit to writing something down? Because a lot of us, I know even though, you know, I host a podcast, but I have the benefit of someone coming along and editing me, making me sound better. And I know in real life I always wish I had that person. So a lot of times I do, if I have something special I want to say, I do write it down because I want to make sure that, you know, the message is really thoughtful and that I have more control over what I’m saying. So are there scenarios where it’s actually a good thing to use text instead of verbally talking to someone?

NICK MORGAN: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Yeah, absolutely, I suppose if you were concerned about the emotional tone of the message. The issue though really is you have to understand the basic problem. Any kind of form of writing, unless you’re Shakespeare, involves basically less emotional information getting through than a face-to-face conversation. And so you might feel safer in that situation. You might feel like you can control it better.

But what happens when we get face-to-face is that willy-nilly, we exchange a huge amount of information about intent. And that’s what humans really care about. We care about what’s the other person intending toward me? Is that person friend or foe? Is that person going to have me for dinner or am I safe with that person? Is this person more powerful than me or less powerful? So those are the kinds of questions that we’re asking.

When we don’t get that information – and here’s the important point – we tend to make it up. The brain hates to be deprived of information like that because its survival depends on it, and it’s always predicting a few seconds ahead: is there danger here? Is there danger here?

And so what the brain does is when it’s deprived of those channels of information, the brain makes up information. And here’s the kicker: it makes up negative information because that’s more likely to keep you alive if you assume the worst. And so that’s why so much of written communication gets misunderstood, and typically misunderstood not on the positive side, but on the negative side. People usually are offended or their feelings are hurt. You rarely get people calling up and saying, “Boy, I misinterpreted your email. I thought it was wonderful!”

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yes, I don’t think that has ever happened. I am wondering if we’re going to try to address this problem, how do we start going about it? Is there any use to telling someone, you know, I really prefer phone or I really prefer, you know, an exclamation point on the end of the email, so you sound more friendly. I mean, is there any sort of purpose in sharing our preferences with other people or do we just have to adapt?

NICK MORGAN: When you think about it, email we’ve been doing since the 1970’s – 40 years we’ve been doing email. And I like to say there’s one thing we’ve learned as a species about email: that all caps means you’re shouting. And basically we haven’t learned anything else. So the learning curve is very, very slow on this one.

So yes, the answer is we need to start doing a lot more to improve email. It’s not going away. It is an incredibly efficient means of communication, so we’re stuck with it. We should by all means, try hard to make it better. And there are lots of little ways to do it. Unfortunately, there’s no one button you can press, but there are lots of little things we can do to make it better.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So as the sender of an email, what are some of those little things? Like if you’re the one composing an email, what should you be thinking about?

NICK MORGAN: So you should be thinking about making your intent clear in as many ways as possible. So one simple thing to do is to write the email and then read it aloud. And here’s a fun thing to do, if you’ve got a few extra minutes: read it in different tones of voice. So read it as if you were being really sarcastic and see if the meaning sustains that sarcastic reading because that’s what the other person’s going to do.

Put a headline in that makes your intent very clear. Basically just says, here’s the one sentence takeaway from the email and here’s my intent – I’m trying to create a happy outcome here. This is what I want. And then – and this may surprise some serious Harvard listeners – but I’m a big fan of emojis. And the research right now shows that people still think emojis are a little juvenile or for teenagers or something, in the business setting.

And so I’m on a one-man crusade to change that because emojis can soften the anticipated sting of an email by putting a little smiley face on it. It sounds a bit silly perhaps, but it can save you a huge amount of time. And so I’ve started to use emojis and all my friends and colleagues are now getting used to the fact that my emails come with a string of emojis attached.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: You know, I have to say I’ve worked at HBR almost 12 years and for that whole time I have used emoticons or emojis in my emails. I don’t apologize for it .

NICK MORGAN: Good for you. That’s awesome. You are saving yourself and your recipients a lot of time in trouble. It’s a good idea.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah, so if we’re the one composing these messages, whatever the format is, there’s a lot we can do to kind of exude extra warmth so that the recipient knows that we care about them. But if we’re the recipient of a message, I can’t tell you how many times someone has shown me an email saying: “Look at this email, can you believe it?” And I read the email and I think it just seems like a normal email to me, but clearly it’s triggered something in the recipient. So if we’re on the receiving end of an email that feels ambiguous or threatening, what should we do? Like how should we respond to that?

NICK MORGAN: Your natural instinct – you’re hardwired to assume the worst and so you should fight that natural instinct just because the odds are probably pretty good your colleague isn’t out to get you – at least I hope that’s the case. And so the helpful thing to do in that situation is to email them back and just question them about their intent: What did you mean here? Can you clarify? It’s going to add an extra round of emailing, but that beats starting a Cold War with your colleague that could last for weeks, months or years.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Well I wonder about that too because there are times when people can get pretty defensive if you ask them to clarify. For example, if someone forwards you a whole email thread and just says “Your thoughts” or “FYI.” In those situations, you know, you kind of write back: “I’m sorry, you know, I’m not quite sure what this is about. Can you fill me in?” And you know, we are all triaging. People do – they’re just trying to clear their inbox. They think they’ve put it on you to now figure this out and now you’re coming back with more questions. So I understand, but how can we sort of do this in a way that’s a little bit more… building connections rather than building frustration?

NICK MORGAN: If the risk is really there, is really real, and you’re in danger of, as I say, starting in Cold War, then I would say pick up the phone and talk to the person directly. Every relationship that’s predominantly virtual needs to be updated or reinforced every now and then with a face-to-face meeting.

And it’s astonishing to me as I was doing the research, how often I talk to people who said they were in an office with somebody who was literally only three or four cubicles down and they never talked to that person face-to-face. And in fact, they would rather send them a text or an email then get up and take 10 steps and talked to them. So you’re going to have to renew the relationship every now and then face-to-face. And that’s the sort of the first best thing to do.

And, and we started this conversation talking about how efficient email is and that’s why we get so much of it and that’s what we have to triage it. But actually a face-to-face meeting is very efficient in one important sense. That is, we humans care about each other’s intent. Intent is very hard to convey except face-to-face where it’s easy and effortless. We’ve evolved for millennia to be able to understand each other’s intent quickly and effectively face-to-face. And so think of that as a different kind of efficiency: Get together every now and then and just clear out the inbox of all the misunderstandings and the mistaken intents and the lack of clarity, and over a cup of coffee, get to know the other person. It’s really much, much simpler in the long run.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That’s interesting. I love a different definition of efficiency. What if though you are in one of those virtual teams where you are all scattered around the world. Are there ways to get some of those benefits of face-to-face communication without being face-to-face or do you just have to kind of make the effort and spend the money to all get together?

NICK MORGAN: I would say the first best answer is yes – spend the money every now and then bite the travel bullet and go ahead and get together. Failing that – or in between those magnificent trips to Bali where your colleagues are fortunate enough to live and work – I would say one thing you can do – it’s very simple nowadays – is get out your mobile phone and record a quick thirty second video. Send the video to them.

You can formalize this on the virtual team by saying everybody sends some quick update on their local culture – something that will be fun, perhaps a sports event that you care about, or a nice dinner that you had or whatever is appropriate in the context and in the culture. Make it fun. Send those around. That can do wonders for making the other person human and seeming relatable.

Another one is to begin every meeting with going around the room and asking everybody, are you – think of a stoplight – red, yellow, or green? Where red means I’m facing Armageddon. I’m having a meltdown. Don’t talk to me. I really shouldn’t be on this call. Yellow means I’m having a normal stressed out day. Cut me a little slack, but I’m here. And green means everything’s good to go.

So what that does is that allows people in a safe way to express the sort of intents that they would normally do if they had a face-to-face, everybody wander into the conference room, kinds of meetings because you’d spend a minute or two looking at each other and, and if Jack there looked haggard and worn, you’d say, “What’s the matter, Jack?” And if Jane looked all bubbly and happy, you’d say, “What’s up Jane?” And you just naturally sort those things out.

That doesn’t happen on the standard team audio conference, just because it’s much harder to do. The usual first five minutes of a team audio conference are probably the worst five minutes of your day because it goes like this: Boop, “Oh, who just joined? Great, uh, it’s Jack. Jack, how are you?” Jack starts to speak and then boop, “Oh, who is that? Oh, did we just lose somebody who’s on now?”

And you do that for about the first five or 10 minutes depending on how time sensitive the team is. And by the time all of that’s sorted out and you sort of given up and everybody who’s on the call is going to be on the call, everybody’s a little tense and you have no idea how everybody else is doing. And so it’s just incredibly counterproductive.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Conference calls present a whole host of difficulties. There is sometimes difficulty actually hearing people, especially if there’s a bunch of people are in a meeting room and the other people are calling in, that can be really difficult. As you pointed out, there is this kind of chaos of people joining the call at slightly different times. Are there sort of special rules for these kinds of conference calls that you have found particularly helpful either to getting everybody to participate or even just to be able to hear what’s going on?

NICK MORGAN: So the first thing you have to be aware of, it’s just the research that more than 60 percent of the people on a conference call are going to be on mute doing something else. So they’re not paying attention. In a sense, you’re setting yourself up for failure, if you’re the team leader, before you’ve even started, because your team is only going to be a half participating. So you want to think about trying to reinvent that a little bit and see if you can make that better.

There are a number of ways to do that. One of them is not to think about that audio conference in the same way that you thought about in the old days of face-to-face team meeting there. It made sense perhaps for everybody to meet in a conference room for an hour.

On an audio conference, they’re almost always scheduled for an hour or 30 minutes. That’s just because we’re all fighting the last war. There is no real good reason for them to last that long and in fact one company that I studied the setup daily audio conferences – and you think that would be awful, but they limited them to nine minutes. Now, that turned out to be a really good way to get everybody to focus and pay attention because they knew the suffering wouldn’t last that long and they did have information they actually wanted to exchange. And so everybody focused and work much harder to make that go well.

That’s the first thing. Another thing to think about is setting up an MC, so if you have an ongoing meeting and you’re the team leader, don’t try to be of both the boss and the person who makes the meeting go well. Instead, ask somebody else to be the MC who will listen for who’s contributing and who’s not contributing, and every now and then to stop the meeting in mid flow and say, “All right, let’s sum up. Here’s where we are. Jack, you haven’t said anything for a while. Do you want to weigh in? How are you doing?” And so it’s, it’s up to you as the leader of that meeting to check in with people.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Are video calls any better or video conference technology?

NICK MORGAN: In some ways they’re better because you do see the expressions, the facial expressions of the other people involved. Although, what we find when you track – there’s a little bit of research on this – when you track people on video conferences, what they’re actually looking at is that little picture of themselves most of the time.

And when you think about it, that’s a very strange behavior because, when you and I are talking face to face, it would be as if I held up a little mirror and was constantly sort of looking at myself as we talk. How odd would that be? And yet that’s what we do on a video conference. So that just tells you right there, it’s not the same thing. But there’s a deeper problem with it. And it’s something that we have no good fix for yet, which is a video conference is typically screen-to-screen.

And that’s a two dimensional thing. One of the things we humans care about unconsciously, but we care about enormously – we you put it a huge amount of time in something called “proprioception,” which is figuring out where everybody is in space. We do this for obvious survival reasons. We want to know if somebody is coming at us to attack us or give us a hug. We want to know the difference.

That’s very hard to do when you’re looking at something that’s very confusing for your unconscious mind. It’s a flat screen, but it appears to have some depth in it and so my unconscious mind is trying to figure out how far away actually are you, Sarah and I have no idea, so I find that very tiring.

The brain is kind of spinning its wheels trying to figure out where are you in space in relation to me. And so that lack of clear information about depth perception causes our brains to work overtime and that’s one reason why we find video conferencing so tiring. Most people report that after an hour or so, a video conferencing, they’re exhausted and that’s the reason, is your brain is working too hard.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So I’m wondering, we’ve talked about some things people can keep in mind to exude warmth and you know, sort of make all of this easier; build connections with people even when they’re not in the same room. One of the things you talked about in the book was to focus on your message, not on yourself. Can you just tell us a little more about what you mean by that?

NICK MORGAN: Yes. You mentioned this sort of warmth, and it’s natural as we talk about this, when we talk about the need for human connection and the need for a human interpersonal comfort and the sense that we’re not threatened by other people. But when we think about intent, especially in a business setting, we’re actually asking a lot of very subtle questions about intent.

So if I’m sitting around in a meeting, face-to-face, I don’t have to think about this in the same way I do online, but I care a lot about the intent of other people in the sense of not just are they warm and friendly or not, but is this person going to support me n this idea I’m putting forward? Who’s in charge here? What’s the power hierarchy? And is it shifting? Does somebody have a good idea there? Am I going to support that or am I going to be a backstabber? And try to undercut it in some way because of some political move I’m going to make later on.

These are the kinds of games that we play in the business world. They’re extremely important to ourselves and our careers and everybody else around us. We can be good colleagues, we can be bad colleagues, but all of that is about intent. And so that’s really what we care about. So we’re not talking about just are we getting warm, fuzzy feelings of friendliness from other people?

We’re really talking about decoding lots of different kinds of intent. And that’s what we care about and that’s what we need to be able to do better online. And so when I talk about focusing on the message, I mean thinking about the message as a complete package that includes what your intent is and that’s the important thing that you need to be able to get across. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I do wonder also, something I’ve seen in the last few years is sort of more hybrid meetings. So for example, the way we write headlines now at HBR for the website is a group of us sit together in a room, but we all have our laptops open and we’re all in a Google Doc and we’re all sort of brainstorming headlines at the same time. And then when someone sees when they like go by, they’ll say, “Oh, who just wrote that one? I like that one.” And so I’m wondering, as more and more meetings start to happen like that, where maybe there’s a mix of in the room and on the computer and on the phone, is all of this just going to become sort of more second nature to us? Will we finally get used to it? Will we adapt?

NICK MORGAN: I think almost certainly humans will figure out work arounds like that. I mean, that’s a pretty good one, actually. Smart. You folks at HBR, well done. I think for example, I gave the instance of humanity learning over 40 years that all caps means you’re shouting in email. So we do learn slowly these things and we do get more comfortable with the technology.

My fear is that if you get used to, for example, sitting around in a room not addressing people face-to-face, but rather texting them, which I’ve seen millennials – dare I say it – do because they feel more comfortable communicating via text than they do face-to-face. Then what we’re going to get is a generation or a workforce full of people who are uncomfortable communicating face-to-face and incompetent communicating virtually.

And so that’s sort of the worst of both worlds, so that’s the nightmare scenario. That’s my fear and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book was just to say, “Come on, we’ve got to do better at this and we’ve got to start getting clear about intent and helping each other out a little bit, communicating more effectively.”

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Nick, thank you so much for talking with us today.

NICK MORGAN: It’s a pleasure, Sarah. Thanks for having me.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: That was Nick Morgan, a communication expert and the author of the new book “Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.”

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe and Curt Nickisch. We got technical and production help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael.

Leave a Reply