Improving Digital Communication Can Increase Belonging and Reduce Burnout
In today’s workplaces, most of our communication happens digitally. Some studies report that only 23% of our communication at work happens via in-person meetings. That means three-quarters of our communication is via email or a messaging app like Slack. While the rules of how we can communicate in person both verbally and non-verbally might seem a bit more clearly defined it seems to be much harder to agree on the shared norms and expectations of digital communication. But the stakes are way too high to not get clear on how we communicate digitally.
Erica Dhawan author of Digital Body Language surveyed 2000 employees and managers and 70% confirmed that poor digital communication led to around 4 hours of wasted time each week.
In addition to wasted time, breakdowns in communication increase the likelihood of burnout, anxiety, feeling alienated from your colleagues, and a culture of toxicity where personal criticism, blame, and personal attacks become the norm. Beyond just how we feel at work, these breakdowns in communication bleed over into other areas of our lives.
In a Flexjobs study on mental health in the workplace, 76% of respondents agreed that workplace stress affects their mental health. Getting interpersonal communication right has huge consequences for our well-being and the quality of our lives in and outside of work.
Our failure to check our digital communication is causing irreparable damage to our relationships at work and distracting us from the important work of creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where everyone can thrive.
At Create Forward we believe that teaching people how to communicate effectively is essential to advancing racial equity and creating cultures of mutuality and care where people feel supported by their colleagues and proud of their contributions to their organization’s mission.
Here are some strategies I think can support you in beginning to improve your digital communication so you can reduce stressful time-wasting miscommunication and conflict.
Commit to Do No Harm.
What is my intention in communicating with this person? This is an important first step we can often take for granted, especially when we are operating from urgency or assume that our intentions are so straightforward that they don’t need to be defined.
When I set an intention for how we want to communicate with another person, I’m guided by the Buddhist Pratimoksha Vow, which teaches us to do our best not to cause harm. We each must determine the ethical or spiritual code that guides how we show up in relationship.
Unfortunately, sometimes when we work in toxic work environments rooted in dominator culture, we can find ourselves behaving in ways that contradict our values because it feels like the only way to survive the culture and advance up the ranks.
But at what cost?
Set an intention to do no harm when you communicate. Especially when you’re feeling reactive. Once you’re clear on your intention, decide what is the right medium of communication that will ensure that the other person is able to receive your communication the way it is intended?
Will email allow for the most clarity because you can break down a complex process into parts?
Is this a conversation where I or the other person may need real-time assurance because we’re discussing a topic that triggers feelings of imposter syndrome or vulnerability? In this case, a phone call or video chat is best.
Feedback on performance or behaviors that impact others should never be given via email.
Conversations about power and race should not happen via Slack.
How can I communicate in a way that the other person can hear me?
What’s the right medium for this conversation?
Is there background information they might be missing that is making it more difficult for them to understand me?
Is the timing inappropriate?
Clarify our expectations given the form of communication.
Learning to stay curious by asking, Is it true?
Now we’ve all received an email that immediately sent us into reactive mode. We’ve made assumptions about the intentions, and the tone and quickly shot off an aggressive response to defend ourselves. But is any of that true? Not everything we believe is true.
Am I reading intentions into this message that aren’t there?
If someone else, who did not have the history I have with this person, were to read this message would they interpret it the same way?
The question: “Is it true?” gives us the opportunity to move from reactivity to curiosity.
In curiosity, we embrace the possibility that maybe I’m misinterpreting this message and it’s not at all what I think. Ultimately, we’re the ones who save time and emotional energy by taking this approach.
Curiosity helps us avoid taking it personally. In curiosity, we get to ask questions.
We get to check in with ourselves to see if in our haste to check another item off the to-do list our message wasn’t quite clear enough.
We get to take responsibility for our part and not take the other person’s behavior or response personally.
Most importantly, we get to focus on taking care of the relationship by not getting so caught up in the story in our heads about what this person is attempting to do to us and instead focus on aligning what we need and what they need to create mutual understanding.
Some questions you might ask yourself to begin facilitating mutual understanding:
What do I want? Out of this interaction? Out of this relationship?
Aim I listening for what this person needs from me?
Am I communicating in a way that addresses their needs?
Don’t Avoid Conflict
Many breakdowns in communication happen because we are avoiding having difficult conversations that we assume will lead to conflict. But in efforts to keep the peace, we engage in behaviors that increase tension and break trust. Whenever I lead trainings on conflict in the workplace, often hear that conflict feels unprofessional and inappropriate for a workplace setting. What I think people are really saying is that they don’t feel skilled enough to engage in conflict appropriately.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of conflict?
It’s probably, people yelling at each other, heightened emotions, a feeling of being out of control. If that’s what conflict has felt like to you then of course you’d want to avoid it. The problem is that our avoidance leads to passive-aggressive behaviors that undermine our ability to communicate effectively.
So instead of addressing conflict directly, we code it into our email responses, we complain to our work friends, we gossip about each other, we flat out refuse to respond to messages and ignore the problem completely, or we alienate the person that we’ve all agreed is the problem and justify our treatment of them by creating an entire narrative about what a terrible human they are. In our efforts to avoid conflict, we’ve created the kind of environment where no one would want to work.
But what if instead of these messy tactics that increase miscommunication, we learned to stop avoiding conflict and instead see conflict, not as damaging emotionally chaotic force, but a normative part of all relationships.
One that we can learn to engage in a way that strengthens our relationships and makes it so that the next time we get that email that looks a little suspect we assume the best of intentions from our colleagues and make the goal of every interpersonal interaction to do no harm and improve our relationships.
Everyone time we communicate we’re either contributing to a culture of toxicity and domination or a culture of mutuality and care. What will you choose the next time your respond to an email?
Want to learn how to build a Thriving Culture at your organization? Schedule a call with the Create Forward team.