“We can surely do better,” read the last line of the email.
“What the hell does that mean?” asked Margaret.
The young associate had just helped win a big case, and she was reading a “thank you for your efforts” email from the lead partner to the supporting team. Based on the tone of the email, it was hard to determine whether the last phrase was meant to encourage or scold.
I wasn’t sure what message was intended, but knowing the author to be exacting and a little prickly, I thought probably the latter.
This exchange got me thinking about the difficulty of written communications — and how technology seems to make it worse, not better.
The problem has been with us since we began to write, of course. I’m sure the cavemen were often offended by their relative size as painted on the cave wall. Did it depict them as larger than life or just fighting a puny adversary? History — and Shakespeare — is rife with miscommunications and their often humorous or dire consequences.
Who Are You Talking To?
Obviously, we need to use words wisely. The first step is to consider your audience before you begin to write or speak. Lawyers deal with a diverse audience with diverse levels of mastery and comprehension of the language. Anyone having spent time in other parts of the U.S., or even different sides of town, can attest to different styles of communication and different word usage, ya’ll.
And, of course, people have different levels of emotional intelligence and sometimes send (or receive) messages subconsciously.
Shared history plays a part, as well. A casual conversation with a trusted friend allows for more latitude than a conversation with a new colleague or an adversary.
Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Every interaction — especially with a client under duress or a colleague who is stressed — has the potential to be misunderstood. Consider your words carefully, even in casual communications and conversation. As a partner, you should be aware that all of your remarks will be analyzed and rehashed by the younger lawyers. And, as I’ve said before, consider holding back your “fighting words” for when they’re actually needed.
Someone once described communications as a multi-step process:
- You formulate your message.
- You send your message to the receiver.
- The receiver collects the message.
- The receiver processes the message.
- The receiver formulates a response.
- The receiver sends the response to you.
- You collect the response.
- You process the message.
- You decide if a response is needed.
- Repeat as necessary.
At any step, the communication can be corrupted.
Just Pick Up the Damn Phone
We use many senses to facilitate basic communication. For verbal exchanges, we use body language, voice tone and rhythm and other non-verbal signals. With written communication we don’t have the luxury of non-verbal signals. In email and social media we can use emoticons to try to provide a sense of the message. But I discourage you from using emoticons in your business communications. Signing your name with a smiley face comes across as trite and unprofessional. Save it for communications with your good friends.
A lot of people seem to have a fear of phoning, especially younger lawyers. Given the emotional dryness of most written communication, however, it is a poor mechanism for potentially emotional communications. It may be difficult for you, but voice communication, possibly accompanied by a written one, is clearly the best form. It allows for non-verbal signs, follow-up, discussion and clarification of the message on the spot.
So the next time you find yourself looking for the exact emoticon that conveys “I’m deeply embarrassed but at the same time frustrated and repentant,” or some such complicated feeling, just pick up the damn phone!