Medium theory

You have a LOT of options for communicating with others.  Once upon a time if you weren’t talking with someone face to face, you were writing them a letter.  Today we have: face to face, delivered writing (letters, faxes, email), realtime writing (instant message, text), voice (phone, VOIP), and telepresence (remote audio/video feed in real time).

All of these options have different characteristics that affect how your message is received and perceived by the listener, because so much of communication is nonverbal.  When you are sitting with someone face to face, you are picking up cues and reactions like eye contact (are you focused on me or your email), facial expressions (are you getting excited or angry by what I’m saying), and other gestures (tapping foot impatiently, rubbing eyes tiredly).  All of these nonverbal cues are lost when communication shifts to voice only.

Moving from voice only to writing sheds even more fidelity in the signal between the sender and the receiver – gone are voice tones that color emotion into the responses.  There’s a big difference between the “really?” of an interested adult, and the “really?” of an annoyed teenager!

Marshall McLuhan was a communications theory philosopher who helped raise awareness of how the manner in which a message is sent influences the way in which the message is perceived.  He coined the well known phrase “the medium is the message” to highlight this symbiosis, and this concept is covered in some fashion by almost all business communication educational materials.

If we want to be sure others understand us, it is critical to be aware of the medium we are communicating in and adapt our language and phrases to be sure we aren’t misunderstood.  If you’re responsible for team members or you want to be able to communicate with your manager without getting into trouble, you need to mind the medium.

Some years ago I was the technical lead for a small product endeavor.  We were developing a specialized medical app that did not have an equivalent in the market, with hopes of selling it to the local hospital that was giving us design input.  Halfway through the project, the executives were concerned about the number of completed features as compared to the potential cost that was going to get written off.  In other words, we needed to get more done at the same pace.  In OTHER other words – unpaid overtime.

The team and I were young and naive so we “signed up” for it.  As most of us who have been in similar situations know, the productivity went up the first two weeks and then nose dived.  By week three we were starting to make those trivial mistakes that creep up on people with a rest deficit.

It was 1AM some weeknight and I was working through my assigned feature.  I noticed in my instant messenger that one of my team members was online.

Chris’s reply took me off guard.

Oops.  Clearly Chris was upset.  What I was trying to “say” was:  Well (get to a good stopping point) and then GO TO BED.  But I realized what Chris “heard” was:  Well (quit whining and complete the entire feature) and THEN go to bed.  Chris heard the emphasis on entirely different parts of the sentence, and that drastically altered how the words were taken.

After a little clarification I was able to recover from my imminent nomination for worst tech lead ever.  Chris made it quite clear he wasn’t happy with what he’d “heard”, but I was lucky – how many times are we misunderstood, and don’t realize the other person is picking up an entirely different tone?

As you go through your day today, try not to just be “in communication” thinking about the content you’re receiving and what the content of your reply is going to be.  Keep part of your mind disconnected from the conversation and focus it on the overarching channel that you’re communicating over.  What are you hearing that could be taken a different way?  What are you saying that could be misunderstood?  Are you making joking comments that could accidentally be taken seriously?  Maybe that conversation is too important for the low fidelity of email and you need to pick up a phone.  Don’t just communicate over the medium, be mindful of it.

Have you had a communication misunderstanding worse than Chris and I?  How do you mind the medium when you’re not communicating face to face?

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