Become a Masterful Communicator: Part Four

Written Communication: Issues and Fixes

“I didn’t mean it like that!” ~ Everyone 

All of us, at one time or another, have had the big written communication fail. Sometimes we’re the “messor,” and other times, we’re the “messee.” My earliest recollection was in seventh grade when I received a note from someone that said, “(so and so) told me to tell you she wants to break up with you.” Now, what exactly was I supposed to do with that?!? Some years later, I sent a special Valentine to a “potential” girlfriend made from a simple computer program I wrote. I thought I was clever and creative. She thought I spent waaaaaaay too much time on this card and got scared away. Despite my protestations to the contrary, the damage was done, and “we” were history. 

Now you have a good idea why I’m so sensitive to written communication breakdowns! And why I’m so bothered that they’re happening everywhere.  

Issues and Risks

What’s going on? Here are some obvious culprits, and I’m sure you can add to the list:

  • We’re communicating more through technology and less in person than ever before. In the absence of our tone of voice, nonverbal cues, and immediate feedback/two-way responses, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are commonplace. Our inability to hear the tone of voice is particularly damaging when an incorrect one is imposed by the receiver. Clarifications are also made difficult due to the lack of instantaneous give and take. As such, it takes longer to rectify mistakes.
  • Perhaps through a false sense of a protective shield, we are writing messages that are much more appropriately shared in person/orally. This includes content that is provocative, sensitive, and confidential. And, especially on social media, messages are often more bold, angry, disrespectful, impulsive, arrogant (counting opinion as fact), and divisive than is our general nature. We can come across as more direct than intended. Not good!  
  • Out of view, we are less sensitive to our audience and may not read from their perspective. When relationship strains exist, or when feelings may be hurt, written communication can be especially risky.
  • We forget to consider that written communications can end up in the “hands” of others without our knowledge or permission. Also, emails and social media posts are routinely monitored by current and prospective employers—certainly not our intended audience!
  • We can write more casually than the situation calls for.

Here’s a good example. I have a friend whose relationship with another was showing signs of strain. My friend was feeling judged and wanted to share her concerns. For various reasons, she chose to write a letter. Knowing both parties as I did, I discouraged my friend from sending it due to my perception of the risks of how it would be received without her tone of voice. Although my friend’s intentions were honorable, it proved to be a disaster. It was received defensively as I feared, and it took several years to restore their relationship. An all-too-common situation when we decide to write it out, rather than talk it out.

Fixes

So, how can we reduce the risks of written communication fails? Here are some suggestions:

  1. When in doubt and the risks are high, prefer oral communication (in person or via technology). If, as the experts claim, nonverbal cues and tone are more powerful influences than our words, it’s worth considering. But if you must…
  2. Be sure your attitude is right. Avoid writing when you’re angry, emotional, or upset. This applies to writing you initiate or when you respond to social media posts. Consider sleeping on it or holding off until your emotions are in a better place. This will test your self-control, but it’s well worth the extra time. 
  3. Remember your audience. Few suggestions are more important than this, given that written communication is one-way and absent your voice tone. Package your message so it will be received openly and respectfully from your audience. This will not only help you communicate in a proper tone, but it will also greatly improve your content and word choice. This is especially important if your audience will likely perceive your content as “bad news” or upsetting. Avoid arrogance, condescension, and insensitive remarks like the plague.
  4. Don’t write something about someone else you would regret if they saw. Also, avoid sharing confidential information unless it’s approved and labeled as such.  
  5. Read it out loud before you press “send.” Once you’ve developed your initial draft, read it from the audience’s perspective in monotone fashion. This will help you make any needed last-minute adjustments (and correct errors!). Also, if you have a chance, run it by someone else for feedback to see whether your message will likely hit the target. They can offer invaluable perceptions, so take their comments to heart. These are helpful confirmations about whether this communication should be in writing at all. 
  6. Be sure to distinguish between fact and opinion.
  7. Ensure your writing style (casual vs. professional) is appropriate for the circumstances and audience. 
  8. Press “send” and expect the unexpected. Often, despite our best attempts, our message doesn’t come across as intended. Even if we’ve taken every precaution, some may misread your comments and react strongly. In these situations, it’s best to follow up with oral communication to avoid further misunderstandings. Or, in the case of social media when comments are with people you don’t know, think like the Beatles and let it be. 
  9. Take the issues and risks mentioned above to heart.

I hope these help your written communications be the best they can be and reduce the risk of breakdowns. Next time, I’ll tackle conflict management in the last of our five-part series, so stay tuned. (Just in case.) 

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