Mass Miscommunication: How Misusing Digital Tools Undermines Results

You fiddle with your smartphone under the table during an important meeting. You type an (error-ridden) email to a client while talking (distractedly) on the phone. You interrupt a sensitive discussion with your spouse to respond to a trivial text message. You use a social media platform to reconnect with an old friend, only to offend her (and others) with an ill-advised attempt at humor. And really, you’re not some clueless boor: Everyone you know operates this way. In our device-dominated world, it’s what passes for communication.

Yes, at some point or another, we’ve all allowed quick and easy to replace meaningful and productive. But while shoddy communication is ubiquitous, it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

The very tools that enable us to maintain contact with people all over the world also distort our priorities, fragment our concentration, degrade our ability to listen, and scatter our attention. But like any other tool, our phones, computers, and tablets are inanimate objects.

They aren’t the problem. We are.

Here are ten surprising tips to help you shake off counterproductive communication behaviors and get better results personally and professionally:

Back up to go forward. (Remember how we communicated before we got our new devices.) The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s just too much “chatter clutter” getting in the way (just consider the frenetic activity happening on Twitter at any given moment!). To make the most of our conversations, we need to remember how we connected effectively with others before we had smartphones and computer screens to “help” us.

Invert your expectations. (Lower your hopes for your “smart” devices.) Because technology does a lot for us, it’s no surprise that we’ve collectively fallen in love with it. But in our enthusiasm for what our tools can do, we’ve lost sight of the people behind the tools. It’s time to turn that around. Our devices don’t possess the communication abilities we think they do.

Lose your “friends.” These days, it’s not unusual to be superficially connected to large numbers of people. And it’s way too easy to send hundreds of marginally important messages, chat with distant acquaintances, and spend hours surfing the web, leaving no time to talk to the people who matter most. In other words, meaningful relationships are being trumped by people you barely know.

Prioritize the people in your life—actual and digital. No, you aren’t being rude or insensitive. You’re clearing your life of counterproductive chatter and safeguarding time and energy for the most important people in your life.

Stop talking and think for a minute. While words can build relationships only slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless Tweet, or a hasty remark can—and does—land people in hot water all the time.

People require some space to absorb information, formulate their responses, and deliver them effectively. I’m not saying that you should take a vow of silence; merely that, as the CEO of your tongue, you should issue an executive order to stop talking long enough to think about what it is that you’re going to express. This will help you to clear out a lot of distracting conversational clutter, get in front of ill-advised words, and provide the space you need to self-correct when you’re angry or upset.

Don’t always “be yourself.” (Careless self-expression is usually an excuse for bad behavior.) Not so long ago, there were more structural impediments to our communication. We couldn’t afford to talk frequently to people outside our local area code, and it was hard to talk to several people at once unless the conversation was face-to-face. If we made a communication gaffe, it wasn’t such a big deal. But now that we can talk to anyone, anywhere, at virtually no cost, the ability to express ourselves instantly can be much more dangerous.

Question your questions. Questions are not always neutral. They make some of your conversations better, but as you’ve probably noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even “simple” inquiries can go awry. “Is your mother coming over for dinner again?” or “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.

Don’t try to solve every problem right now. Our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary collaboration, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. That’s why smart communicators, like smart doctors, have a good triage system—its categories are Now, Delay, and Avoid—to focus on the most pressing issues, while delaying or ignoring less important matters.

Let difficult people win. Jane talks too much. Jim is incredibly stubborn. Uncle Billy loves to argue. Your client is moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations—even though we’re unlikely to influence these people. For example, we wrestle with Jane to get a word in edgewise. We struggle to change Jim’s mind. We fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into Uncle Billy’s arguments. We try to offset our client’s mood swings. Sometimes, it’s just time to quit trying.

Respond with weakness. We all too often use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering e-mail when a more restrained reply would suffice, or issue an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would do. Conflicts that start or escalate with excessive force frequently cause a destructive cycle—attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.

Bring a stick to a knife fight in order to neutralize a harsh conversation. Try to stay serious and focused, and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Keep your words calm, controlled, and stabilizing—don’t add any new emotional material.

Be boring. Modern culture promotes the false notion that communication should be as flashy, stimulating, and entertaining as the sleek devices that facilitate it. We assume that the best conversations are also the most exciting ones: the ones that are intense or high stakes, that bring big news, that are filled with emotion, or that contain something unexpected or novel. But exciting conversations are relatively rare and often don’t go our way. In reality, good, meaningful communication usually looks plain, unremarkable, and boring. And guess what: That’s okay.

As we move further into the digital age, let’s embrace new ways to connect while retaining the ability to communicate meaningfully and effectively with each other. Whether you are talking face-to-face with one individual or broadcasting to hundreds via email or social media, you can use higher-order communication skills to make sure that your interactions count.