I am old enough to remember a time before we had the convenience of email and text messaging. Rather than attach documents to email, we sent copies of paperwork and formal memos in re-usable envelopes through inter-office mail. If you needed something faster than the interoffice mail system allowed, then you either made a phone call or you got up from your desk and walked over for a face to face conversation. If a matter was urgent, you checked with the area secretary who handled their calendar to see where you could find them.
Those days are long gone in our speedy, internet driven world. Email, text, and other online options help us "communicate" about anything at anytime.
But it's one thing to deliver a message; quite another to talk with someone. Why? Two words: Intent and Impact.
We judge other people's intent based on the impact they have on us. We have "impact" in every interaction; some of our impact is intended, but some is unintended. That is, we didn't mean to impact the other person in the way that we did. Sometimes unintended impact is positive, but often it's not. If you've had to apologize to someone, you had negative impact on them. Your apology was a way to account for your impact.
To make things a little more complicated, we tend to credit ourselves for our intent. If you've uttered the words, "I didn't mean it," then you know what I am talking about. We also tend to believe that because our intent was positive, we are not responsible if our impact is negative. It can be hard to accept when you get news to the contrary. Ultimately, we are accountable for all the impact we have, positive or negative, intended or unintended.
In every communication, we try to match up the intent and impact of others in the conversation. We do that to keep ourselves safe. Safety is a natural human need.
When you talk face to face, you have a better chance of understanding intent, rather than assuming intent. You get the help of body language and facial expressions, as well as the "energy" of the conversation. As a bonus, you can ask the person you're speaking with if you are right about their intent based on what you see, as well as what you hear and feel. You have more "data" to work with to make your assessment.
Ironically, we tend to avoid talking face to face with people we have difficulty communicating with. It doesn't feel good when we can't match intent and impact. Over time, those bad feelings add up. We come to expect to feel bad -- and to assign negative intent -- when we are around that person, regardless of the content of communication.
When communication is challenging, and you find yourself assuming the worst in people, that's when it's time to go old school. Yes, the old knock and talk. Make a point of having your conversations in person (or at least on the phone) as often as you possibly can. Reserve email and other electronic methods for simple exchanges of information -- and nothing else. In person conversations may still be awkward. But as someone accountable for your own intent and impact, find the courage to ask questions and gain clarity when you're not sure things line up. When you leave questions unasked, and thus, unanswered, you open yourself up to unnecessary drama. The worst case scenario, you become part of an ongoing dispute that could become career limiting if left unchecked.
Email makes some things easier. We all know that. But it can also complicate things if over-used, or if used to avoid difficult, awkward, or painful conversations. The more complicated the communication situation, the better to go old school. Put the old knock and talk method to use. You'll be glad you did.