THESE DAYS YOU’D BE PRESSED to find someone who hasn’t felt a pang of anxiety brought on by a flashing ellipsis in a chat box or spent time analyzing the meaning behind a period versus an exclamation point in an email from their boss. While technology might make communication easier, sometimes it seems that niceties are dropped in favor of being super responsive. These expert tips will help you decide what form of communication to use and how to use it well.
Finding it difficult to communicate thoughts, ideas, or feedback to a group in less than a few paragraphs? Are multiple departments involved? Opt to meet.
Decision fatigue generally occurs as the day progresses, says Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and career coach. For this reason, afternoons are best reserved for a brainstorm or free-flowing meeting. In fact, according to a study from Albion College, you’re actually more creative when you’re tired. Schedule a logistics meeting for late morning (post-coffee!), when people tend to be sharper and more focused.
To avoid interrupting, wait a beat after someone speaks to make sure they’re done. Struggling to get a word in? Try “bookmarking” by raising your hand slightly, like you’re signaling a waiter; this tells everyone you’re next, says Vanessa Van Edwards, author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People.
Using inclusive language, like “we” instead of “you” or “I,” helps foster a sense of unity, especially in tense settings, says Van Edwards. Where you meet matters too: Research from two Canadian business schools found that sitting at a round conference table encourages collaboration, while a square table can spark competition.
Inclusive language, like “we” instead of “you” or “I,” helps foster a sense of unity in meetings.
A call should be scheduled when you can’t meet face-to-face with someone or the topic is too long for email (over three paragraphs).
Smiling and hand motions come through in your voice, so try to be as involved physically as you are mentally. Van Edwards likes this trick when she’s on calls: She pulls up the person’s LinkedIn photo and talks to it, making her feel more present.
If it’s your first time talking with someone, jot down a few notes beforehand. Start with the person’s name and any details about them you already know or gathered from LinkedIn. Being aware of someone’s background and interests can set them at ease and help conversation flow.
Chatting via Skype? Wilding recommends sitting in front of a plain wall and making sure the camera is set at a flattering angle. When speaking, look into the camera instead of at your image. Place a small sticky note with an arrow above the camera as a gentle reminder.
Weekly check-ins or discussions about emotionally loaded topics—good or bad—are best handled in person. That way both parties can register intonation and nonverbal cues that might be lost via email.
In the meeting invite, include what you plan to discuss so you can both prepare, says Wilding. Eliminate misunderstandings post-meeting by following up with a quick email listing next steps or to-dos.
A genuine smile, eye contact, and verbal affirmations like “Oh, how interesting!” are little ways to show engagement. When we receive these cues, our brains release oxytocin, a feel-good chemical that gives us a sense of community and belonging. “Do what feels most natural to you, because authenticity matters,” says Van Edwards.
To demonstrate understanding, summarize in your own words what someone has said to you. Include both the surface and emotional meanings, suggests Nick Morgan, author of Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World. Start with something like “What I hear you saying is,” or “What I think you mean is.” This gives the other person the opportunity to clarify if needed.
Email is ideal for sending instructions, checking in on a project, or sharing files, and when you need a written record of a conversation.
Break tasks down by person and use bullet points to help everyone know exactly what you need help with. Not sure what the subject line should be? Think of the keywords you’d use if you had to find the email later, says Morgan.
Write the email before adding the recipients, says Van Edwards. This will not only prevent the dreaded accidental send but also let you add recipients based on the content of the email. Want to avoid those lengthy multiperson email chains? If you need several people to comment on something, such as a document, consider creating a shareable file (like a Google Doc), where everyone can propose changes in one space.
Focus on the action needed to remedy an issue. Instead of saying, “The client has a problem with our presentation, and it’s going to be difficult to fix,” try, “I would love your help fixing something that the client brought up on our call.”
If your team is remote or short on meeting space, a conference call can be a good way to share an update or get feedback.
The person in charge should introduce everyone. If that’s you, be sure to mention each person’s role, and then have them say hello so people can ID their voice. Ask the group to mute their phones so distracting background noise is eliminated.
Pose questions to individuals instead of the whole group, which sometimes results in crickets. Say, “I know this is Julie’s area of expertise. Julie, did you have anything to add?” This gives people a chance to speak up and lets you get information, thoughts, and feedback from someone immediately, making the meeting more productive.
Online tools, like Zoom, make it easy for the group to contribute thoughts without disrupting the flow of the call. Participants can pose questions to the emcee or share links and files to back up a point they’ve made.
That one-sentence email, two-word reply, or quick hello works well in a messaging system like Slack. While email remains necessary for external communication, a messaging system could seriously cut down your internal-email volume.
The real strength of a messaging platform is the ability to catalog and organize information, says Anna Pickard, head of brand communications at Slack. “Unlike email, which can be automatically deleted over time or disabled when someone leaves the company, the files and information shared in Slack are always available,” she says, “which gives new employees the advantage of the group’s knowledge.” Organization is paramount. Create channels by topic or project and invite the relevant people to the conversation. Need to chat one-on-one? Use the direct message function so discussions in channels stay focused on the topic.
Pickard advises keeping messages digestible by using bullet points and even emoji. If something needs to be discussed or explained further, start a separate thread; in Slack, just click the chat bubble underneath a response. Think of this thread like a sidebar: It’s hyper specific and lets you elaborate on a topic without muddying the larger conversation.
Are your coworkers sometimes difficult? Get advice at realsimple.com/coworkers. ■