The problem with texting on work issues when things get misconstrued

With so many communication devices, styles and methods available to us, it can sometimes seem as though the technology is outpacing our ability to develop skills around them.

Texting, for example, is a kind of language that enables simple, short messages to get to someone in the quickest possible way, which usually means a lack of structure and a lack of concern for punctuation. Unfortunately, there is a lot of room for things to go wrong, and they often do.

Writing like talking

It started with email, where communication tools allowed us to talk to each other in a very quick, unprepared way. In the days of writing a letter it took considerable effort – a note would be structured, planned and worded in a way that conveyed tone and a message. There was no backspace button, there was no ‘undo’ function, so you had to be careful when crafting a message.

Email provided a way to communicate really quickly, and mistakes of tone didn’t matter as much (they still mattered, but could be retracted or corrected with a follow-up email of clarification or apology). If a detail was missing it would be included in the next message. This has lead to many language constructs and formal uses of language becoming a lot less common.

Texting takes it to a new level where it is a very informal communication – very similar to talking – where you’re not thinking about punctuation, sentences are short and the messages are simple. It’s no wonder this has become such a popular conversation medium – it’s almost effortless.

So what’s the problem?

Like most communication, the problem lies where the message sent is different to that of the message received. The facts/core message is one element, the tone, emphasis and intention is the other element. Facts are fairly straight forward – you’re either requesting something or informing someone. The tone often goes missing, which leaves it up to the recipient’s imagination to fill in the intention of the message. That’s the problem.
Some people keep their messages ultra-short – because they are being quick and efficient, or maybe they find texting annoying, difficult or frustrating. All of these elements contribute tone indicators of the message being left out.

An example:

‘Need you to redo the proposal ASAP’

If your manager sends you a message like this, there is so much room for uncertainty. Have I done something wrong? Do I get a say in this? Have I forgotten something important? If there is any sort of power dynamic between you and your manager, you might not want to question it. You may not want to seem upset or defensive. Whichever way – you feel angst.

It seems minor, but it can be the starting point for some heated feuds down the track. Our never-ending search for efficiency often comes through as abrupt and rude speech.

Always seek the highest level of communication when there is doubt

Text messaging is fine when it’s an agreed form of communication about work, or there’s an understanding of the context. A text usually means it’s an urgent request. For some, the text option is used when they are not at a computer but want to get a message through, or for those who don’t want to rely on someone checking in to read their emails.

But when doubt arises, such as the example above, don’t let it linger. Take action to clarify, and if you still aren’t getting the context or information you need then dial the number. Make an old-fashioned phone call rather than guessing or smouldering – and clarify before this escalates. If the other person refuses to answer the phone then your communication problem may run a little deeper than the tone of text messages. However, for the sake of the conversation, all you can do is try and be as clear as you possibly can.

What if someone is aggressive to you in a text?

Sometimes the informal nature of text messages lends itself to the possibility of people becoming abusive. The problem with abuse is that it’s normally triggered by a misunderstanding of the initial message. Trying to sort that out via text message is impossible, because you not only have to correct the understanding of your original intention, but you also have to respond appropriately to the aggression.

Again, if this happens it shows that the communication medium has failed. It’s time to move to another option, so a phone call or email that allows for a more expansive explanation and response is a much better way than engaging in a text war (which is very easy to escalate without meaning to).

Should texting be used in business at all?

This question is starting to present itself more and more as the worlds of work and home converge. Texting is integrating further into our lives, particularly if you work/live with younger people.  If a communication method is effective between two people then it should be used. If you’re worried about misinterpretations then you can always discourage people from communicating this way. If they text, call in response and explicitly say you don’t like texting. You’ll find that people very quickly accommodate, as in the modern world it seems getting to know someone includes understanding their preferred communication channels.

Eve Ash, psychologist and CEO of Seven Dimensions, has produced over 500 business films, including some hilarious comedy films (www.7d-tv.com) and is a widely acclaimed public speaker (www.eveash.com).

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