The “improving communication” saga Episode 3: Choose your communication channels

Here’s a confession: I deeply resist making phone calls. I know exactly why. I’m much better at communicating clearly in writing, and I’m super comfortable with email. I also love face-to-face meetings, where I can gauge clearly how my message is being received. Phone calls feel to me like driving while blindfolded, and without having figured out the road beforehand.

And yet I know that emails can be an ineffective communication channel when you need a lot of back and forth to figure something out, for example. And that face-to-face meetings take time to plan and are sometimes impossible due to distance. So I’ve worked hard to decrease my resistance to phone calls and use them when they happen to be the best approach.

What about you? Are you clear on your preferred communication channel? Do you know which ones you resist and why?

Understanding which communication channel to use

There is no “best” communication channel. Each one has advantages and disadvantages and keeping these in mind can help you choose the best one for that particular issue and person(s). So let’s drill down into them:

The part of the iceberg (context and hidden messages) that you see when you communicate with someone (see Episode 2 of this communication saga to know what I’m talking about), isn't the same in all channels, meaning some channels are more appropriate than others for different types of communication.

Say, I'm  chatting with Sheila in the hallway, and I remember I need her to do something. Right away, I launch into a detailed description of what needs to be done. If Sheila doesn't take notes, chances are good she'll forget half the steps. I may get mad at her, but I could've prevented the situation by sending an email instead, or afterward as further support, so that Sheila could read my instructions as many times as needed.

Face-to-face talks

Face-to-face talks let you see or guess as much of the iceberg as possible. You are both able to read each other's face and body language clearly. You also have instant feedback, both conscious and subconscious, on what the person is thinking and feeling, and this back and forth allows for any misunderstanding to be caught in time and dissipated more quickly. Use this one for:

  • Any communication that requires quick turnaround and feedback (e.g., brainstorming, reaching a consensus)

  • Emotionally charged or delicate matters (a raise, a review, a conflict, something that the person is not doing well, if you suspect burnout in your team member).

To a certain extent, video messages, (e.g., teleconferences, skype, facetime, and so

on), work in a similar fashion, but they rarely render voice inflections, facial expressions and body language with the same high fidelity as in true face-to-face conversations. They are also harder to manage when several people participate.

Telephone calls.

While you might be able to deduct some of the hidden iceberg parts from voice inflections, you’ll lack visual cues from facial expressions or body language. Don’t underestimate how much information (particularly subconscious) cues can be missed. Because they're still back and forth communications, phone conversations do make detecting incorrect decoding of a message quicker and help solve potential misunderstandings.

If we're working with someone long distance, our choices may come down to telephone or email. If feedback and discussion are needed, telephone communication normally allows you to sort out the problem faster (And I’ve come to appreciate this in spite of my natural resistance!).

Written messages.

Written messages (emails and text messages) have no voice inflections or visual cues to help interpretation and have a longer feedback time. We may miss out on a lot of clues as to the exact meaning the other person is trying to convey.  You may not know whether a phrase is meant in an angry, sad, joking, dead serious, or desperate way.

Phrases that can be made to sound lighter with a voice inflection or a smile may come out sounding accusatory or negative in writing. Without voice inflections and facial expressions, sarcasm and joking are harder to detect. We’ve all received the weird email where you are not sure the sender is joking or truly being rude.

Written messages, however, are useful for recording agreements and thought processes that need to be accessed later, and to help people remember what needs to be done. Use them for:

  • Sharing factual information or instructions, where the receiver may need to refer back to the information later on.

  • Recording agreements.

  • Praise. While it is also great to give and receive praise in verbal form, written praise is something the other person can keep and refer to in downtimes.

Visual messages (graphs, figures, images, videos).

In some cases, such as sharing factual information, graphs, figures, images, or other visualizations can be an even better choice than written words. Since we all consume so much written information all day long in emails, newsletters, media and so on, it is no surprise that we are so much more tempted by videos, images or graphs that cut through the monotony. Think about which posts grab your attention on social media.

Visual information can be consumed faster, and studies show that graphs or images are remembered much better than written words.

Visual messages can still be misinterpreted though, so you'll need to take care when preparing them to ensure they're interpreted appropriately. Use them for:

  • Conveying complex information in a summarized way

  • Grabbing people’s attention, cutting through the information noise

  • When you want a key message to be remembered

Figure out people’s preferred communication channel.

Same as you and me, we all have our preferred communication channels. When you work with other people (your team members, your boss, clients), it usually pays off to figure out early on which are their preferred ones. Email? A quick call? Text-messages? Which text-messaging app do they use? Are they the kind that prefer a hallway chat?

Contacting them in their preferred channel can facilitate communication, and ensure that you get the answers you need, when you need them. Of course, you still need to take into account the advantages and disadvantages of each channel, as we discussed above, but you’ll know you have a better shot at getting a good communication started when aligning with their preferred channel.

Now we’re dying to know, do YOU have a preferred (or detested) communication channel? Share in the comments or on Facebook!