Don’t hide behind email

Communication  Relationships
21 December, 2015

The magic of face-to-face conversations, and six tips to stay connected in person

There is no denying that technology and connectivity are transforming the way we converse. With email and the likes of Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook, a lot more time is being spent in virtual conversations. Therefore, what happens when face-to-face conversations take a backseat, in the context of all this connectivity?

So, my message this week focuses on the power of face-to-face conversations. With all that technology has on offer, why should in person communication still matter?

In short, because there just isn’t a substitute for having a conversation in person. Being there allows you to pick up cues on what is going on – cues that you would have missed otherwise on a call or an email. You can watch how the other person responds to you and react accordingly. And it makes all the difference. We take a large part of our cues from non-verbal communication. This is how we are wired as human beings. We are constantly looking for what goes unsaid and this can only happen if we are face to face with the other person.

Edward Hallowell describes this as the power of the ‘human moment’, in his Harvard Business Review article, The Human Moment at Work. As he sees it, there is something that happens when you are both physically present as well as intellectually attentive with the other person. A connection that requires investment and energy to create. That is exactly what the ‘magic’ is all about; it comes from being that involved.

Think about some of the best and the toughest conversations that you have had, as friends, parents, children, partners, colleagues and managers. Conversations which may or may not have turned out as planned, because they were evolving even as the two of you spoke. It took both of you to be invested in that moment. And when you look back today, what you remember isn’t just what was said, it is also in the way the other person smiled in agreement or looked around nervously or maybe even walked out of the room. It could be the tone of voice used or even the colour of a shirt. Because these are the things that we remember, the things that we react to. And this is what an email or a message doesn’t capture.

Sure, technology offers us faster alternatives. Given how busy we constantly are, they work well. But as Brett and Kate McKay, point out in in their article The Power of Conversation: A Lesson from CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, while this may make conversations more efficient, it also makes them more superficial. We are losing out on the spontaneity and open ended-ness, the possibility that face-to-face conversations allow for, when we hide behind screens and communicate as much as possible through email and text. As a result, what takes the biggest hit is our ability to empathise and connect. Why do we do it? Not just because emailing and texting is efficient and easy, but as the McKays highlight, it offers us the ability to edit our messages and make sure we say things ‘just right’. Right there is the biggest problem. We are usually so busy trying to come across as well crafted, that we miss out on being ourselves. And that authenticity is critical for any relationship.

To be fair, the problem isn’t really with the technology; it’s with how we use it. Technology was never supposed to be traded in for face-to-face communication. It was meant to complement it. To add on when there wasn’t an option to do so in person. Not to be adopted across every possible situation. And yet, we are using it as a shield of sorts – the way out, that doesn’t require you to be that invested or take much ownership or go the extra mile and figure out a conflict. You can skim the surface of a problem and be passive aggressive if needed. Especially if the conversation is tricky or awkward.

Let’s take an all too familiar example. You receive an email from someone asking for information they haven’t received, a pending approval or something similar – and it is copied to a bunch of people (usually their managers and yours). And it bothers you simply because when they come from someone sitting down the corridor from you, it is something that you could sort out perfectly well by walking over and having a conversation. So, what is your response? Chances are that you will get defensive and write back stating your reasons (pointing out where it wasn’t your fault but theirs) and copying everyone from the first email, along with a bunch of others. And so it goes on snowballing; not helping anyone involved and certainly not decision making or the task at hand.

So, how do we go about managing situations like this better? “High tech requires high touch”, as I read recently. The more virtually connected we get, the more we need to make the effort to stay connected in person too. To be able to leverage the best of both, to have more rounded and meaningful conversations overall. Here are six suggestions on how you can start doing that more effectively:

1. Make the time for it

Often, the biggest reason why we don’t end up talking face to face is because we don’t have the time for it. We are juggling multiple things and the walk down the corridor isn’t worth the investment. Plus if you start a conversation in person, chances are that it could veer off track and you will end up spending more time on it than you had intended for. These are all very real concerns. And while you should certainly be looking for the most effective way to communicate, don’t rule out the fact that your best approach may be to do it in person, just because you don’t have the time for it.

2. Learn how to identify the best alternative

While you turn to email and text to make things more efficient, sometimes just getting the concerned people in the room for fifteen minutes to talk it out, can be much quicker. Sure, there will be times when online collaboration is the better option. But being able to understand the interpersonal dynamics at play, weigh in on the options and make this distinction is something that we should try to get much better at. Don’t use technology as a substitute for face-to-face conversations, in the same way that you shouldn’t assume that just because people work in the same physical space, they don’t need to collaborate online.

3. Solve for distance

Make the effort to travel and meet people who aren’t in the same location. This will help you empathise and get a better sense of what is going on. Being closer to the ground will help you draw sharper insights and you will in turn, be able to respond quicker and better to the needs of our consumers. This is especially so during times of uncertainty. If anything, we should invest more in this because it can be a very powerful competitive advantage to leverage, if we do it right.

4. Use it to build relationships and engage actively

I am sure that many of you will agree that the shared experience of conversing in person goes a long way in building trust and paving the way to work together more effectively. This isn’t something that can be created without the investment. So, spend the time. Even do this more informally over lunches or coffees or the occasional movie. Look for different ways to engage with people. Have these conversations; get to know each other better. Enjoy doing it while you’re at it. It will make all the difference when you want to reach out later.

5. Avoid chances of misinterpretation

Have the tougher conversations in person. If you know that there is a chance that something can be misinterpreted or that it is likely to be a tougher conversation, just do it in person if you can.  This is where you can offer any additional information required and hear the person out better. Just having the flexibility of managing the turns the conversation could take, can make all the difference. Don’t look to hide behind an email or text. It will only complicate it further. So, next time you are angry or frustrated, stop pressing the send button. Have the courage to have a real conversation to resolve the issue. It will make a big difference.

6. Address the real issues

Very often, what is translating into the form of communication chosen, is actually symptomatic of much larger issues. So if the concern is really that you aren’t being able to manage conflict as a team, sharing feedback is difficult, people aren’t aligned with decisions being made, there isn’t real accountability or you just have the wrong person in charge – deal with that. Call out the issue and solve for it. Don’t allow people to hide behind blame games. Like in the case of the example I had used earlier, email becomes a way to rope in a larger set of people, irrespective of whether they are connected or not with the issue. It ends up snowballing, even if it wasn’t that significant an issue in the first place. You need to actively discourage this and then continue to walk the talk.

As a company, we will only be as successful as the relationships that our team members can build.

To be truly able to tap into the diversity of our teams, encourage debate and innovation, challenge where we are today and build for a stronger tomorrow – we need to be much closer and much more involved. We need to build that camaraderie and trust and respect. And that can only come from more meaningful conversations, face to face.

Sure, we will work across geographical divides and cultural differences, so there will be extensive use of collaborative technology. But the purpose of that has to be to complement. Not stand in for the effort we need to make to meet face to face. This isn’t just for our team members, this is about how we interact with and understand all our different stakeholders.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.


  • Mukta Gadkari says:

    Your article just prompted me to walk to a colleague to initiate a difficult converstaion which I have been avoiding by using neutral and calculative tools like E-Mail and texts. Thank you 🙂


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