Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
You know that feeling of frustration, that rises up into your neck and shoulders, when you receive an unexpected or poorly phrased e-mail from your colleague? The one where you hit reply, furiously type a response and then, just before you hit send, remember to take a deep breath and save it in your Drafts folder until your heart rate has leveled? Everyone’s been there. But, have you identified, more broadly, the types of communications that trigger your frustration?
I had the privilege of teaching a seminar on Mindfulness and Effective Communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week, and in the dialogue that ensued we
discussed frustrations in using technology to communicate, from e-mails, to phone calls and even work text messages.
One woman described a situation where she constantly received e-mails from her senior after 11pm. Unfortunately, the email did not contain a deadline or expected timeline for her response. As a result, she often worked into the wee hours to avoid the anxiety of unknown expectations and show her commitment to her work. This breakdown in communication is all too common, and can be resolved through more effective communication on both sides, but it raises the point that there exist specific categories of communicators. The MIT participants and I discussed the stress-inducing communication archetypes in today’s workplace, and identified the following five prevalent types:
- I Had A Thought. The person who constantly writes short emails with a thought or task-item. This person inundates Recipient with many emails per day. The motivation for emailing the thought, as opposed to saving it as a draft until it can be combined with other tasks or better explained, is to get it off of Sender’s desk. Sender doesn’t want to forget about it, so she sends it to you.
- Multiple Mediums. The person who writes you an email, follows up with a phone call, and then texts you an hour later about the same item. This person tries to reach Recipient through her computer and phone by all methods possible. The motivation for using multiple mediums is to serve Sender’s needs most expediently.
- Too Much Information. The person who writes verbose emails detailing all thoughts associated with a subject without sufficient structure. This person fails to consider Recipient’s time in sifting through the information. The motivation for verbosity is usually well-intentioned, in wanting to adequately convey research, reasons and justifications. This serves to further frustrate Recipient, since it is difficult to justify being annoyed with someone who is trying to perform well.
- Out of Office Hours. The person who consistently writes emails or otherwise communicates outside of office hours, and particularly at odd hours, as referenced above. The hallmark of this archetype is that the person does not indicate a deadline or expected response time. The motivation for consistently sending emails at odd hours is that it works better in Sender’s schedule. It is important to set expectations and be compassionate here, on both sides, as many of these communicators are parents who must address work at late and early hours.
- Figure It Out. The person who forwards emails or Ccs you, but with no instruction. This person assumes you will know what to do with the email or otherwise puts the onus on you to spend time figuring it out. The motivation for the Figure It Out sender is to save time while delegating a task. Recipient is perplexed. Recipient is keenly aware that the email as forwarded without content to save Sender time, so is hesitant to reply requesting direction. Recipient thinks, wouldn’t Sender have included direction in the original email if she were willing to spend time explaining the task?, and then proceeds to guess at the task. Alternatively, Recipient is embarrassed to ask for instruction since it was cleary assumed that she should know what to do.
Which type of communicator is the most stressful for you? Perhaps more importantly, do you fall into any of these categories?
In tying this back to your business efforts, consider how your communication style impacts your professional brand. If you market yourself as a compassionate advocate and then forward Figure It Out emails, you are sending mixed signals. People won’t believe that you truly care. Your communications, both internally and externally, can play an important role in enhancing, or diminishing, your professional brand. Is your messaging consistent?