By Rich Preuss
“I never told you he stole the bike.”
Such a simple sentence has so many potential meanings. Read it over and over but put the emphasis on a different word each time.
Now think of all the emails, texts, and tweets that you receive in a day. In our fast-paced work environment, the information comes at us quickly and all too often we make snap judgments about the content without having enough information.
You might think this is a modern-day problem since we live in the information age, but it is a story as old as the Tower of Babel. Good communication takes time and effort. It also entails assuming the best of others.
In our office, we have a rule that communication about difficult issues should be done face-to-face. Unfortunately, this rule came not from foresight, but after many a difficult conversation due to someone reading an email and assuming intent that wasn’t there.
In my haste, I have often sent emails that went straight to the point without giving much background or context. While I considered those emails efficient, others often viewed them as curt, aggressive or even outright attacks.
What usually happens next is that the recipient’s response is equally hasty. Ironically, our haste actually slows things down and creates inefficiency; the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. Things tend to escalate quickly, and a cycle begins that must somehow be stopped.
Written communication is tricky. Studies have indicated that as much as ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal. Face-to-face communication comes with much more context: tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and eye contact. All of these things communicate information that isn’t conveyed in an email.
Years ago, one of my partners and I got sideways in our relationship. It was unpleasant and embarrassing because we were both committed Christians. Once we got sideways, we started assuming the worst of each other in our email correspondence. We had to break the cycle.
Looking back, a lot of the things we were assuming were actually kind of funny. I would say something like, “This is what I felt this email was conveying.” He would be surprised that I had read that into the correspondence. He too read things into my emails that weren’t there. What got us back on track was a consultant who asked, “What’s the problem here? Both of you want the same thing!”
Sadly, we live in a world that encourages us to make rash judgments all the time. This is what makes headlines, sells products and gets people to watch television. When we are constantly surrounded by sensational language, we easily fall into the trap of making rash judgments.
I have found some things that help me out of this trap: assuming the best of others, seeing them as children of God, seeking first to understand them, and not being attached to my own opinion.
I have not perfected these methods, but being aware of the situation has been a first step towards progress. Thankfully, my colleagues and I now know that any troubling emails will result in a call to the sender’s office with the request, “Do you have a minute to talk?”