HBR: 10 digital miscommunications — and how to avoid them

working w disability - HBR: 10 digital miscommunications — and how to avoid themJune 15, 2020 (Courtesy of the Harvard Business Review) As COVID-19 spreads across the world, more and more of us are working from home. In light of this global shift (and all of our heightened stress levels), it’s crucial to take steps to avoid miscommunication when working as part of a virtual team.

We’ve spent four years studying the science of emotions and their intersection with our lives at work. We’ve spoken to thousands of workers globally, and one of the most common questions people ask us surrounds just this — how to best communicate in the digital age. How do you avoid sending a passive-aggressive Slack message (“let’s chat”) or email (“Just bumping this up in your inbox!”)? How do you hit the right tone over text? Did you go too far by adding that exclamation point?

Below are our tips for staying connected and remaining supportive of your team, even when you’re not in the same location:

1. ADD EMOJIS (BUT PROCEED WITH CAUTION).

Emojis can help us express tone, meaning and emotional cues. If Liz adds a goofy face to her “Don’t be late!” text, she makes it easier for Mollie to see she’s joking. But an outpouring of emoji, especially when you don’t know the other person well, can undermine your professionalism. It’s best to wait until you have an idea of how the other person will receive emoji before sending a slew of smileys. As a rule of thumb, one emoji per email or Slack message is appropriate — unless it’s the first time you’re communicating with someone, in which case: Leave them out.

2. REALIZE TYPOS SEND A MESSAGE.

Typos reveal that we were in a rush or heightened emotional state when we hit send (or that we’re the boss, and don’t need to care about typos). Researcher Andrew Brodsky describes typos as emotional amplifiers: if Mollie sends Liz an angry email filled with typos, Liz will imagine Mollie hammering out that email in a blind rage. Even if you’re in a rush, spend two minutes proofreading your work, or better yet, read it out loud to catch any typos your eyes skip over.

3. EMOTIONALLY PROOFREAD YOUR MESSAGES.

Always reread what you’ve written before hitting send to make sure your message is clear and conveys the intended tone. Sending “Let’s talk” when you mean “These are good suggestions, let’s discuss how to work them into the draft” will make the recipient unnecessarily anxious. It’s easy for one-line emails or Slack messages to be perceived as passive-aggressive.

4. PUNCTUATION MATTERS EVEN MORE FOR VERY SHORT SENTENCES.

Responding “OK” with a period can come across as more negative in tone than “OK” without a period. Adding a period adds a finality to your statement and heightens the negative emotion. It can communicate, “This conversation is over” rather than “OK, sure, we’re in agreement.” As you get to know someone, pay attention to her punctuation style. You may find there are people you work with who always add periods after the word OK, and so you can stop overanalyzing their punctuation.

5. USE RICHER COMMUNICATION CHANNELS WHEN YOU’RE FIRST GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER.

We’re most likely to interpret ambiguity as negative when we’re texting or emailing with people we don’t know well, or with more senior colleagues. Say Liz emails Mollie, whom she knows very well, “Your email to the editor could have been better.” Mollie will take the email at face value. But if Mollie receives the same email from her boss or a new colleague, she may think her email was so egregious that she’ll never be allowed to email an editor again. Using video conference when you begin working with someone new helps build trust. Seeing each other’s facial expressions will allow you to better read between the lines, chit chat and develop a genuine relationship. After you know the person, you can use email more frequently.

6. DEFAULT TO VIDEO.

At Trello, a project-management software company, if even one person on a team works remotely, the group will jump on a video call; this ensures everyone feels included and makes it less likely for information to be lost. Studies show that around 65% of communication is nonverbal. When you’re not on video, you’re missing emotional cues that come from facial expression and body language. Video isn’t always possible, but it’s best to make it a habit when you’re able.

7. COMMUNICATE YOUR LEVEL OF URGENCY IN SLACK.

On Slack, you’re just a message away from asking someone, “Can you just give this a quick glance?” or “Could you add your ideas to this document?” By sending these messages, you’re dumping work on other people. The real-time nature of Slack means that people interpret your requests as urgent and feel they need to respond right away. So, before sending a request that will take time, ask, “Is this a good time?” If you don’t need a response right away, say, “No rush, but could you help me with something when you have a chance?” And if someone has “Do Not Disturb” mode on, respect it.

8. DON’T PANIC.

If an email makes you enraged, anxious or euphoric, wait until the next day to write back. Even better, talk face-to-face when you’ve calmed down. That way you’ll be better able to articulate your emotions, and the needs behind your emotions, rather than just your immediate reactions. When you do reply, reread your draft through the other person’s eyes. It might be easier to imagine how your reader will interpret your email if you first send it to yourself. Additional tip: Always leave the “To” field blank until you’re ready to hit send.

9. AVOID EMAIL WHEN YOU NEED A ‘YES.’

An in-person request is more than 30 times more successful than an emailed one. Research shows people see email requests as untrustworthy and non-urgent. If you do enter into an email negotiation, it helps to first schmooze in person, over video chat or on the phone.

10. DON’T SEND EMAILS OR SLACK MESSAGES DURING OFF HOURS IF IT’S NOT URGENT.

Even if you write “don’t read/respond to this until tomorrow/Monday,” chances are the reader will still think about your email all weekend, and might even feel pressure to respond immediately. Save the email to your draft folder or schedule it to send later.

Most digital miscommunication happens because we don’t have access to the nonverbal cues that give us valuable emotional context when we’re discussing in person. These tips can help, but the fail-safe solution is to pick up the phone or get on a video call.

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