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Mass Miscommunication:

Ten Ways to Stop Misusing Digital Tools and Undermining Results

November 2013

by Geoffrey Tumlin

Technology offers more and more opportunities to connect with others, yet the way we use it often creates disconnects. Here are ten counterintuitive but concrete tips, based on my experience as a communication consultant, to help you avoid high-tech pitfalls and communicate more effectively.

Back up to go forward. The digital revolution facilitated hypercommunication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s 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.

Specifically, implementing three guiding habits will help you be more present in conversations and will improve your digital-age communication: listen as if every sentence matters; talk as if every word counts; and act as if every interaction is important.

Invert your expectations. Lower your hopes for your “smart” devices. Because technology does a lot for us, it’s no surprise that we’ve 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.

A tech-centered view of communication encourages us to expect too much from our devices and too little from each other. We assume that hitting “Send” means we’ve communicated, when, really, the other person may not have understood the message at all. Until we restore a more people-centered approach, we will continue to feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled by our interactions—despite having the most powerful connection and transmission devices in human history in the palms of our hands.

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—in a four-tier pyramid. The top of the pyramid—Tier A—should be composed of a small number of the people most important to you, those you want to have open access to you at all times. People in Tier B should have good access to you, but you need to monitor the time you give them more closely. People in Tiers C and D shouldn’t have open access to you. You might return a voicemail from a C within 24 hours, and Ds will just have to wait until you can get around to them.

After you’ve made these distinctions, stick to them. No, you aren’t being rude or insensitive. You’re 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 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.

“I was just being myself” sounds harmless, but it’s often an excuse for indulging in destructive behavior. You will get what you want more often if you don’t allow your feelings to dictate your words, and focus on what you want to accomplish instead of what you want to say.

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. “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the person you’re asking thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.

Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query simply to indulge your cravings for an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. Better to focus on what you can learn from or about another person and ask questions that reflect a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing.

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.

Make Delay your default to stop automatically assigning too many things to the Now category. That way, many issues may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your intervention. And use Avoid for issues that reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings deep inside another person, unless they are interfering with critical work.

Let difficult people win. Jane talks too much. Jim is incredibly stubborn. Billy loves to argue. Your most important author is moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations. 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 Billy’s arguments. We try to offset the author’s mood swings. It’s time to quit trying.

At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your desire to “win” by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.

Respond with weakness. All too often, we use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering email 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, and on and on. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.

It’s not always easy, but try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective. In other words, bring a stick to a knife fight 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.

Think about it: It’s not really excitement and intensity that you want from your conversations; you want colleagues, bosses, and direct reports you can count on. And they want the same from you. The fact is, boring is dependable. Bland is steady. Over time, what seems unremarkable turns out to be quite remarkable after all, because strong and durable relationships are built through thousands of routine interactions.

As we move further into the digital age, let’s retain the ability to communicate meaningfully and effectively with each other while embracing new ways to connect.

Whether you are emailing or texting with one individual or broadcasting to hundreds via social media, thoughtful and deliberate communication will make your interactions count.

Geoffrey Tumlin, the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC and the founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations.. His writing has appeared in newspapers, journals, textbooks, and online. To learn more: tumlin.com and geoff@tumlin.com.


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