Building Trust And Avoiding Pitfalls With Digital Communication

Sometimes science proves something that we already know. Like that the earth is round. Or that innovation and human emotion are intertwined.

Human nature, with its innate prejudices, biases, and hard-wired survival mechanisms, creates enormous social transaction costs. This problem is examined in greater detail in one of our favourite innovation ecosystem studies: The Rainforest by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt. According to their study, one of the rules for creating ecosystems where innovation thrives is that participants must “trust and be trusted”. But in today’s digitally connected world, building trust is uniquely difficult.

Building Trust Through Digital Communications

Email, text and other digital messages are becoming more common than traditional face-to-face communication. We think of these newer forms as more efficient, but according to the work of communications expert Nick Morgan, they can cause more problems than they solve.

“A face to face meeting is very efficient in one important sense. That is we humans care about each other’s intent. Intent is very hard to convey except face to face where, by comparison, it’s easy and effortless. We’ve evolved for millennia to be able to understand each other’s intent quickly and effectively face to face. So think of that as a different form of efficiency.”

Moran knows what he is talking about. He’s the author of Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World available from Harvard Business Review Press.

Moran acknowledges that digital communications are both quick and cheap. But he cautions that time is scarce. So we tend to skim and triage these types of communications, approaching them less thoughtfully than we should. As a result, we’re increasingly prone to misunderstanding intent, and being misunderstood ourselves.

He also cautions us that the research says we all think we’re better at both interpreting and communicating than we actually are, via a sort-of communication Dunning–Kruger effect.

Choosing Writing to Avoid Miscommunication

Some people feel like  email should be the perfect way to convey important information, because you can be more thoughtful and precise with the words you choose.

This might not always be the case. Moran thinks first we have to look at the basic problem: any form of writing involves less emotional information making it through to the other person. So you may feel safer and more in control. But what humans really care about is intent: what does the other person intend for me? Is that person friend or foe? Am I safe with this person?

Our brains can’t stand being deprived of this key information. And when it’s absent, our brains create it. Our brains believe our very survival is at stake and are always trying to stay a few steps ahead, alert for danger. And of course our brains are more likely to create negative information to fill a gap because that’s more likely to keep us alive — better safe than sorry. Moran believes this brain behaviour is exactly why so much of our written communication is misunderstood with a negative bias. It’s hard for many of us to recall a time when someone misinterpreted an email positively.

Digital Audio Communication: “You Sound Like a Zombie, and You Feel Like One Too”

So is there any way to have our cake at eat it too?

One neuroscientist jokingly suggested “pick up the phone and actually read your carefully written email to the person…”

But Moran doesn’t buy that either. He suggests things like audio conferencing are better, but still not a substitute for face to face. The compression required to send analog voice efficiently over digital networks reduces quality, and that reduction of quality strips out overtones and undertones. So only the basic pitch comes through. But it is in the undertones is where the brain finds intent. So we’re both confused about intent and also bored by the flat voices.

Video Conferencing: The Problem of Vanity and Vectors

In some ways video can be better, because you can see the facial expressions. And that’s important when trying to determine intent. But are we looking? Research says what many of us may already be embarrassed to know: what most people are actually looking at during the call is the picture of themselves.

Another problem is the two-dimensional screen. Moran thinks that really messes with our proprioception, that is, figuring out where we are relative to everyone else in three-dimensional space. This is another danger-avoidance skill our brains use to trip us up at work. Our subconscious brain isn’t certain a coworker won’t suddenly lunge at you with harmful intent, so in the background it’s working overtime to figure out where these 2D figures really are, and it’s exhausting. This is why some people report after an hour of video conferencing that they’re exhausted, and once again, may falsely attribute this exhaustion to the tiresome nature of their co-workers or face to face communication.

Will We Just Develop a New Sense for Digital Text Over Time?

Moran believes we’ve been sending some version of email for about 40 years, and the only thing we now know for certain is that ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING. So maybe, but the slow learning curve means that we’re better off looking for ways to practically improve our communication strategies today. Moran suggests the following to get started:


Tips for Sending Better Email

Make your intent clear as possible  when in doubt be explicit about it. “Great job today” can be interpreted as sarcastic if the recipient doesn’t trust you, or thinks they didn’t do well. Instead try “Hi Mohammad, I want to thank you for your work today, and tell you I thought it was excellent”. If you’re not sure: read your email aloud, if you have the time use a few different different tones, like sarcasm. Does you word choice work with that tone? Better to rephrase.

Use headers to make the intent of your paragraph clear — Millennials in particular tend to use a conversational style of writing, and this can make a point easy to miss or misinterpret. The same way paragraphs separate thoughts, headers can distill them.

The dreaded emoji — Moran is a big fan of emojis. Unfortunately he admits that the research shows people think emojis are juvenile in business, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take to make his text more interpretable. “A smiley face can really soften an email” he says.


Tips for Interpreting Email

Make generous assumptions — We’ve all had the experience of finding a coworker deeply frustrated by an email or text. And sometimes that same communication looks fairly innocuous to a third party. Again, Moran thinks we’re hard wired to to assume the worst, but should fight that instinct because the odds are better that your coworker isn’t out to get you.

And if you really think you’re on to hostile intent, a helpful thing to do is to reply and ask them about their intent. “What did you mean when said…? What was your intent…”

If you’re really in danger of what Moran calls “starting a cold war” then pick up the phone and talk to the person directly. Humans who connect as humans communicate better.


Tips for Virtual Teams

Moran says that every relationship that’s primarily virtual needs to be reinforced and maintained with regular face to face meetings on an ongoing basis.

If you have the budget, he suggests teams “Get together and clear out the inbox of all the misunderstandings, mistaken intents and the lack of clarity. It’s really much, much simpler in the long run”. It’s probably also cheaper than eternally dysfunctional teams.

If you don’t have the budget? Take out your smartphone and record a quick 30 send video. Everyone on the team can send a quick update about their local environment or something fun. 30 seconds of face time can do wonders for making other people human.

– Article by Kyle Shantz

This blog post is the first in a series examining the rules of The Rainforest by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt. Some content was  adapted from HBR Ideacast episode 655 Avoiding Miscommunication in a Digital world. 

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