Distance Communication

Emails Can Be Fertile Ground for Misunderstanding & Conflict


Emails have become a valuable and indispensable part of our lives, both personally and at work.  We provide information, seek information and maintain a record of the email communications that we have had so that we can go back and remember those “conversations”.  Most of us don’t think much about the form of our emails, we just write and send them.  But have you ever received an email that made you angry, or made you feel disrespected?  I have had several conversations with people about this very issue over the past few weeks, so I thought it might be an issue that needs addressing.  I remember that when email first came on the scene it was viewed as an electronic version of a letter.  Formal business letters have a certain format including a salutation, a body and a closing.  Following this format was/is expected and as a result helped shape the individual and company image and simultaneously communicated respect to the person receiving the letter.  Emails have changed over the years and I think have taken more of a “text” or “message” format.  These latter formats are based on brevity and often include abbreviations and even acceptable “bad grammar”, and many times exclude the salutation and/or the closing.  People have come to expect that type of format in texts, but what about emails?  I think the answer to this question is that “it depends on who is communicating with whom about what”.  It goes without saying that if you have something to say to someone that has negative emotional content, don’t send it in an email, rather do it face-to-face or at least over the phone when face-to-face is impossible.  But even non-emotionally laden content can be misunderstood.  For me, the key is to always think about how the other person could interpret (or misinterpret) the message and always communicate with respect.  A salutation as simple as “Hi, Joe” or “Good Morning, Joe” can help to set the stage for a more positive reading of the content.  Likewise, clear communicative language in the message body even to the point of clarifying your intent can help to eliminate misinterpretation.  Obviously your relationship with the person receiving the email will guide the language and format that you use, but it never hurts to be polite, even with those with whom you have a good long-term relationship.  Also, when receiving an email, don’t be so quick to jump to negative interpretation of ambiguous content.  Give the person the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they did not intend to be disrespectful or otherwise negative and check it out before responding back with a short, curt email of your own that was intended to “get even”.  Emails can be a valuable, time saving tool unless they create misunderstanding and conflict that is unnecessary and counterproductive.  Take a moment to think about what you are writing in your email and then re-read what you have written before you hit send.  It could save you a lot of time and relationships if you do.

Managing From a Distance

Have you ever called a direct report on the phone and given him precise instructions, only to find later that he did not follow through on what you requested? Or have you endured a “30-minute” video conference meeting that lasted two hours, only to close with no resolution? If so, then welcome to the exciting world of remote communication and management. Virtually anywhere you can find people communicating and managing from a distance.  You can also find missed information, poor accountability, a lack of follow-through and a good deal of frustration.

Advances in communication technologies over the past decade have had a significant impact on the oil and gas industry. To date, however, most of us have been slow to acknowledge that effective remote management requires not only communication technologies but also a special set of skills and an understanding of how communication works when it is conducted through teleconferencing, videoconferencing, e-mail and the like.

The oil and gas industry is trying to resolve this problem by training employees to recognize and respond to the challenges of communicating and managing remotely.

Remote communication carries many inherent challenges, not the least of which is the challenge of accurately conveying the intent of your message. The little ways that you communicate your intent in face-to-face communication are often so subtle and habitual that you are not even aware of them. A slight twist of the lip transforms a harmless comment into a sarcastic criticism. A momentary glance in one direction indicates the object to which you are referring. But when communication takes place over telephone or e-mail, these critical expressions aren’t there.

All too often, we go about our business communicating as normal, unaware that an essential part of our message will never reach our audience. And we wonder why that direct report failed to do exactly what we told him over the phone.

Are we doomed to sacrifice the clarity of our messages for the operational benefits of managing from a distance? Fortunately, the answer is no, but it will require specialized training, which can pass on lessons learned by observing some of the best remote communicators and identifying best practices. For example, when the best communicators need to clarify the intent of their words while communicating from a distance, they take care to state in sufficient detail why they are saying what they are saying.

The value of this best practice was made apparent during a classroom exercise to teach participants how to communicate effectively using e-mail. Each participant was given one piece of a larger problem, then told to communicate with one another to solve the whole problem. The catch, however, was that they could not speak; rather, they had to use pens and sticky notes to communicate.

One participant, after finishing her portion of the problem, approached her co-worker and scribbled the note, “What’s your problem?” to which the co-worker responded with an offended expression on his face.

“Nothing! What’s your problem!” Obviously, the intent of the original message was not conveyed. If she had written instead, “What’s your problem? I would like to see how it fits with the one I’m working on,” the co-worker would have understood her intent. Explaining why you are saying what you are saying is one of many things that the “best” do when communicating remotely.

Clearly, there are many other challenges and best practices that must be addressed during training to bring about the desired results. In general, a three-part solution is recommended when training people to handle the challenges of remote communication: (1) provide personnel with a clear understanding of the way that face-to-face communication works so that they can (2) identify the specific barriers posed by the remote communication media that they use daily, which sets the stage for them to (3) acquire the appropriate skills that will allow them to overcome those barriers.

This approach not only enables employees to diagnose problems that arise in their daily communications, it also equips them with skills to overcome those problems quickly and effectively.