Point/Counterpoint: Communication

by on Nov.10, 2009 , under program management

This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, April/May 2009 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank both Multilingual and her co-author, Tina Cargile, PMP, for graciously consenting to republication of these articles in the GlobalPragmatica blog.

POINT: The “right” way to communicate depends on the other people

Erin Vang, PMP

I once started writing up communication guidelines for all the project managers involved in my program (including several at vendors) and after several pages decided that I’d better keep it to myself, because my list made it far too obvious how neurotic I am. Some of the greatest hits I later culled from that list for a slightly less neurotic-looking set of guidelines:

  1. Always put the project codename in the subject line (and various details that boiled down to “do me a favor and spell it correctly”).
  2. Also include a hint about the actual subject in the subject line (don’t just reply to whatever I sent you last to save yourself the trouble of starting a new thread)
  3. Please! No emails just to say “thanks.” Let’s just agree that we’re all grateful and polite and save the thank you emails for the truly heroic deeds.

And then there were guidelines to avoid the CC-proliferation problem—where you CC one person on an email as an FYI, and then the reply comes back with a few more questions and a few more CCs, and so on, and before you know it everyone from the vice president of your company to the assistant vacation substitute for your project manager from two years ago who’s no longer with the vendor are all involved in a lively discussion of whether Coke is “pop” or “soda.” (True story, only slightly exaggerated.)

Did anyone notice that I started right off with email and wonder why?

I didn’t think so.

Which brings me to my real points, which are far more important than learning anyone’s list of email pet peeves. First, the only right way to communicate is the way that works for the people on both sides of the communication. Let me illustrate with an example:

Not long ago I needed to discuss something with Tina, my collaborator in this “Point/Counterpoint” column. I didn’t want to write email, because the subject was sensitive, and to me it was quite urgent, so I phoned her. When she didn’t answer, I left voicemail describing the situation and asking her to call back. She never quite got back to me, which was frustrating. Sooner or later we did get in touch and worked it all out, but it didn’t happen quickly, and I couldn’t figure out why…

…Until recently, when Tina and I were exchanging ideas about this very column you’re reading now. She wrote, “It is clear that everyone has their own best ‘receiving’ style. For me, it’s written communication—gives me time to research, reflect, and basically not screw up my answer. I’m guessing you like the phone better, or maybe it’s a mix. I have an aversion to phone calls—it’s like a command to stop what you’re doing and thinking about. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Long distance was verboten when I was young—unless someone was near death. If they were already dead, a letter would do. And we wrote lots of letters.”

There was my answer—it was my fault! Although I’d left voicemail and asked her to call me back, I had intentionally made my message sound patient and low-key. Why? Because I was likely to be asking Tina for a pretty big favor, and I didn’t want to be pushy about it. (That’s how I was raised!) Next time I’ll know that unless I make it clear my voicemail is urgent, I’d be better off sending email.

As for my preferences, Tina guessed correctly: I prefer a mix of email and phone. For anything easy or brief, I start with email, for many of Tina’s reasons plus a few of my own. I don’t like to interrupt people. Often the details will be easier to understand visually than aurally. Email is often faster.

However, for anything tricky or lengthy, I switch to phone. I’ve found that many people either can’t or don’t understand things completely and accurately when they have to read more than an inch or two of text, and some topics are too complex to convey in two inches. In this case, a phone conversation is usually a better idea.

Unfortunately, writing a six-inch email is often the best way for me to think through the issues and state them clearly. If I just pick up the phone, I’m likely to frustrate the other person with a lot of circling around and unnecessary detail. In such a situation, I’ve found that it’s best to go ahead and write the long email to get my own head clear. Then I save it in Drafts, pick up the phone, and discuss the big concepts with the other person. Later I’ll follow up with email as needed to chase down final answers and details—and with any luck, the follow-up email will be much shorter and simpler than my first draft. [More on this idea within a blog post about meetings.]

One more point: both parties are responsible for both the sending and receiving of every message. I’ll explain.

For the sender: Don’t assume that just because you’ve said it or sent it that the other person has heard it or received it; lots of things can go wrong, including simple human error. (Have you ever read a message and then accidentally filed or deleted it before you replied or took action?) Also don’t assume that the other person has understood it. Even short, simple messages can be misunderstood. It happens all the time. Until you receive a reply that demonstrates the other person received your message and understood it correctly, you are still responsible.

For the receiver: Don’t assume that just because you’ve heard it or received it that the sender knows that. If it’s urgent to that person, have the courtesy to reply, even if only to say, “I’ll get back to you on this later.”

Does that contradict my third email rule, “No emails just to say thanks”? Sometimes. And if you talk to my project managers, they’ll tell you I’ve often left them dangling, not sure whether I received their important deliveries or not. They think it’s a stupid rule and I need to get over it. They’re probably right. Frankly, this is something I need to work on. I don’t like to reply before I’ve confirmed or answered everything in the email, because if I see that I’ve replied to a message, I’ll sometimes mistakenly assume later on that since I replied, that email is “done” and I can file or delete it. To avoid that mistake, I prefer to wait. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s taken me a while to get back to it, and in the meantime the folks on the other end might really need to know whether they can bill me, or release a resource, or go home to bed, or whatever.

Which brings me to my last point: most of us need some work on our communication skills, and in the meantime, we owe some apologies when we drop the ball. To all my project managers who have wanted to smack me for too often not sending timely replies: you know who you are, and if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!

COUNTERPOINT: Be clear about what you need, and consider your audience

Tina Cargile, PMP

As Erin says, there are different sending and receiving styles and preferences—lately it has been fashionable to complain about email, but there are complaints galore out there regarding both verbal and written communications.

We work in an industry that is all about meaning and communication, yet we don’t do much better than folks in other industries at employing effective messaging. There are missteps and irritants possible no matter how one sends a message–either phone or email. How often I have written a draft message and then returned to discover that what I “said” wasn’t what I “meant” at all! Or realized that the receiver was apt to see any suggestions as criticism, which called for a softening of the message.

As a lousy notetaker with a decent, yet aging memory, storing the call notes is essential—but by the time I get around to doing that, some details might have drifted away. With email, I can review every word and confirm that I received the complete message.

Finally, I’m trying to keep up with three different phone numbers (home office, office, and Blackberry), but I can always go a single place to check email when I’m about to board a plane or walk into a client’s office. It might take a couple of hours before I get a moment to check voicemail messages on all three phone lines.

I agree with all of Erin’s ground rules for email communication—having received one too many messages that essentially say “Hey, you know that thing we were talking about a couple of weeks ago? I vote yes.” Huh? Preparing a coherent message includes some preparation. Don’t assume I remember what we talked about a couple of weeks ago—I’ve slept since then.

The same goes for phone calls—I love Erin’s idea of composing an email to get your thoughts in order, and then placing the call. Nothing is as irritating as spending 15 minutes on the phone with someone who clearly doesn’t have a handle on the question they’re trying to ask. Except maybe those who don’t have the information handy on the subject of the call (“hold on for 5 minutes while I print all of this information out”). I usually request that they call back once they have all the data in order. Nicely, of course. [Erin’s comment: I once apologized to someone for answering their call at a time that was inconvenient for them. They didn’t get it.]

In fact, when planning a call to discuss complex issues or a number of related topics, I find it useful to send a call agenda before the call, if possible. Bullet points only! This means the receiver has some idea of the scope of the discussion and can be prepared with supporting information, status, what have you, before I dial the phone.

There are also differing schools of thought among those email aficionados among us. For example, some of my colleagues prefer that I gather up every single topic or action item needed that week to be sent in a single email. I can assure you that such an email would filter down and down in my Inbox; at the very least, I would likely miss one of the to-dos as I circle back to the original email over and over again. Personally I prefer discrete, individual messages, at least grouping by a single topic. This way, I can complete a task and it’s done and done!

On the other end of the spectrum, I despise voicemail messages that say “call me!” If there is a sensitive communication that you’d rather not write down, at least give me a hint. Often I will call back and find that the issue is something I could have researched and been ready to answer right then—but I have to call them back again, once I’ve gathered the information needed to answer.

I agree with Erin completely about the no “thanks” rule. If you must have a response within a certain time–don’t be shy—tell me! Another option is to request a read receipt for urgent matters only. I’ve run into correspondents who request a receipt for every single message they send, which tends to dilute the impact when something is truly time-sensitive or urgent. As I’m fond of saying, “when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.”

Whichever “tools” you use to send and receive information, the most critical task is to be clear about what you need or are asking, and to think about the preferences of those you’re communicating with. It makes life much easier to remember that this client always wants a phone call and that client responds to voicemails with an email reply.

Finally, read your message before sending with the personality of the receiver in mind. Whether or not you meant to say “you really screwed up on this,” some receivers will hear that nonetheless, unless you include a line like “great job on this! I have some ideas that may or may not be useful—you let me know.”

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