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Communicating Through Technology

It is not unusual for a condominium resident affected by noise transmitted from another unit to assume that the person making the noise gives them no consideration or – worse – is purposely disturbing them. While either circumstance may be true, rarely are allegations of this nature verified before a conflict escalates. Bringing people together to allow them to clarify the intentions behind their actions and appreciate the impact that such actions have on others can go a long way in fostering harmony within a community. Misunderstanding can breed ill will and conflict often escalates due to a lack of appreciation of intentions.

As a mediator, I see great value in communication and find that people are more likely to understand one another when they interact in person. As much value as communicating in person provides, in this day and age it is not always practical to do so. Timely communication is the expectation and technology equips us to meet this demand. However, communicating through technology can be very different from interacting in person.

For all that technology may add in terms of speed and convenience, it takes away opportunities such as the chance to observe tone and body language when taking in a message. When we communicate in writing rather than in a face to face setting (in person or on screen), the way that we read can affect how the presented content is received. The environment or mood that we are in at the time can impact our perception in a manner beyond the control or intent of the person sending the message. There is also that pesky autocorrect feature which can serve to alter the communication altogether, along with etiquette to be appreciated in communicating through technology. Failing to reply to an e-mail can be viewed as refusing to shake a hand, yet sending too much e-mail can be considered similarly to not giving others a chance to speak.

My first experience communicating with the kind of technology that has become commonplace today took place in 1998 when I was involved in a student group which organized a lecture by Dr. Stephen Hawking at the University of Toronto. Dr. Hawking is a theoretical physicist who is considered to be among the most intelligent people to ever live. He has a motor neuron disease and uses a speech-generating computer to communicate.

I had the privilege of greeting Dr. Hawking as he arrived at his hotel from the airport. When I met Dr. Hawking, I asked him how his flight was. An awkward silence followed. Just as others among us started to change the course of the dialog, Dr. Hawking replied “Terrible” and everyone burst out laughing. While Dr. Hawking’s sense of humour was very much appreciated, not initially appreciated was the time that Dr. Hawking required to communicate back to us through his computer. In many ways, the delay was the equivalent to the time expected today when you communicate back and forth with someone in real time by text message.

Over the past 16 years, I have reflected every now and again on this experience, particularly as technology has evolved, and have come to appreciate considerations which are unique to communicating through technology. What follows are some tips for technologically-assisted communications:

  1. Keep the message short and simple. Twitter’s 140 character limit is perhaps the most powerful example of how much can be said in few words, yet we have all come across long winded e-mail messages. Long messages run the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or perceived to send a message based upon the volume of words irrespective of content. Text messaging, and the fast paced lifestyle that society has embraced today, guides us to keep our communications short and to the point.
     
  2. Clarify intent whenever you can. While certain etiquettes must be kept in mind in professional communications, in place of tone, body language, etc. it can help to provide your recipient with cues through the use of emoticons and popular abbreviations (i.e. LOL) to clarify the context of your message. I am not suggesting that the inclusion of a smiley face in a message to a client is always appropriate, but the possibility for a joke to be read as a serious comment should be kept in mind.
     
  3. Establish shared understandings. Drawing upon my exchange with Dr. Hawking, the few seconds of silence which followed after I asked him how his flight was felt like an eternity as I did not appreciate the time he needed to reply. Once I understood this, it was easy to take part in further exchanges without concern. Being proactive and clarifying how quickly one should expect a reply serves to prevent your silence from being perceived to be an intentional lack of communication, or interest. The practice of issuing a standard acknowledgement of receipt and providing an estimated timeline for a reply has been embraced by many organizations fielding large volumes of communications. Such practice can similarly apply in the condominium context – and be particularly helpful when a sender does not appreciate how condominiums operate (i.e. that a Board meeting must take place or legal opinion obtained before a reply can be provided).
     
  4. Sleep on it. As much as technology has equipped us to communicate quickly (and has fostered this expectation), when presenting a difficult or emotional message, it can be helpful to take the time to ensure that you are presenting what you truly would like to say in the most appropriate way to achieve the results you desire. Keep a sensitive or potentially contentious e-mail in draft form - without the recipient inserted to safeguard from mishaps - and send it only after you have had a chance to look at it again from a fresh perspective. Consider running a draft by a trusted colleague for a second impression of how it will be received.
     
  5. Pick up the phone. As much as technology has equipped us to provide one-way communications at our convenience, there remains something to be said for the two-way, real time communication that can take place over the phone. While the phone does not provide us with all of the cues we can take from in person exchanges (such as the ability to observe body language), there are certainly occasions where a call can save us a large number of keystrokes.

Technology has empowered us to communicate faster and more easily than we have ever been able to before. Thinking about how we use technology to communicate and proactively addressing the challenges that come with its many great benefits can help ensure that our messages are understood as intended.


By Marc Bhalla - July 2014
Hons. B.A., Q. Med. - Mediator and Senior Clerk

Ext:  811
Email:  mbhalla@elia.org 
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All of the information contained in this article is of a general nature for informational purposes only, and is not intended to represent the definitive opinion of the firm of Elia Associates on any particular matter. Although every effort is made to ensure that the information contained in this newsletter is accurate and up-to-date, the reader should not act upon it without obtaining appropriate professional advice and assistance.
 
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