Improving In-Person Communication In The Digital Age

How many ways do you interact with your coworkers during the day?

Email, instant messenger, phone calls, texts, passive aggressive notes in the kitchen – chances are you use most of these every day. (Though hopefully not the passive aggressive notes!)

Technology has gives us more and more tools to communicate with our coworkers without speaking to them in person. This may be more productive in some regards, but it can also take away from our face-to-face conversations.

In her inspiring TED talk, Sherry Turkle speaks about the way technology has changed our interactions. Communicating in texts and emails and social media posts has allowed us more control over what receives our attention, who we’re speaking with, and – most importantly – what we’re saying.

She points out the risks associated with having a conversation face-to-face, or even over the phone. When she’s asked people, “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people will answer that it’s uncontrolled, that it’s real-time, and they don’t know what they might accidentally say.

“So that’s the bottom line,” she says in her talk. “Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body – not too little, not too much, just right.”

Face-to-face conversations may be riskier than writing a carefully-worded email, but avoiding them means missing out on opportunities to collaborate, bounce ideas off each other, and get to know each other as fellow humans.

How can we get better at in-person communication?

Talk about tough issues in person. Interpersonal conflicts, delicate topics, and even confusing assignments should all be handled face to face, rather than over email or text chat. It’s easier to understand how another person feels when you can see their expressions and body language. Our non-verbal cues convey so much more subtlety than can be conveyed through texts.

Give your full attention to the matter at hand. As Turkle says in her TED talk, one thing technology gives us is the ability to edit out boring parts of our lives. It gives us control over where we put our attention – and the result is that we’re conditioned to reach for a device when we’re bored, even if it’s during a meeting, lunch with a coworker, or dinner with our family. Practice giving your full attention to your coworker or spouse next time you’re having a conversation.

Use the right tool for the right purpose. The great thing about all this technology is that it gives us multiple options to communicate with each other. Just be aware of which tool is the best way to get the job done. Don’t send an email when you need an instant response, and don’t use instant messenger or text to attempt to resolve a problem that would best be talked about in person.

Be clear and direct. Think about the central message of what you want to say, and get to the point. Unclear communication can lead to mixed signals and unmet expectations. Try not to ramble on with unnecessary context – if your coworker needs to know more, she can ask you to clarify.

Watch your body language. In person, we get many of our social cues from people’s body language. Sometimes these signals can be unconscious – crossing your arms, sighing, and checking your phone may not feel negative to you, but your coworker may interpret them as disinterest. Instead, try to practice positive body language like making eye contact, offering genuine smiles, and opening up your stance.

Leave room for small talk. One thing digital communication can do is to divorce the message from the person sending it. You don’t need to spend an hour every morning gossiping around the water cooler, but taking a few moments to chit chat in person about weekend plans, pets, kids, and hobbies can be a great way to reconnect with the people you work with every day.

How has technology changed the way you communicate with your coworkers? Do you think it’s for the better, or has it changed things for the worse?

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