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Call Avoidance

by David Brock on June 21st, 2010

I’ve fallen into a trap, it seems my preferred mode of communication is becoming digital–that is, I email, tweet, text.  It’s so fast, convenient.  To tell you the truth, often it’s the most effective.  A lot of our communication is “asynchronous,” or one way.  Often, we just want to let someone know something or give a reminder.  We really don’t need to engage a person in a discussion.  It’s fast, it’s easy, I don’t have to worry about phone tag or voice mail.  In my busy world, I’ve come to rely on these tools as my preferred mode of communication.

But then, there are the times we use these forms of communication as a form of avoidance.  The other day, was one of those times.  I needed to have a difficult conversation with a colleague.  He had emailed a call report (Yes, I do look at call reports), it was for a complex deal we were working on with a large client in the Far East.  I was particularly worried about this situation, since both language and cultural difference made miscommunication with the customer something we were really worried about.

The email concerned my, my colleague had abandoned our strategy, for no obvious reasons, and was headed down a path that was completely different than the path that we had agreed on — and been working so hard to pursue.  As I read the email, my temper started to boil over, I was really angry at the shift and what he had done.  I immediately hit reply, and dashed off an angry response, escalating things to Defcon 5.

My finger hovered over “Send,”  I was about to send this missile, escalating things.  For some reason I stopped.  Instead, I picked up the phone, steeling myself for a difficult conversation.  I dialled his number, he answered, I replied, “Hi Marc, I just got your email about ……, I’m really concerned about the situation…..”

We had a long conversation, at times it was a little difficult, in the end it was a great conversation.  We had some disagreements, but at the same time we each had a deeper understanding of each other’s views and our course forward.  It was a tough conversation, it was confrontive and uncomfortable.  It was inconvenient–we were separated by 9 time zone’s, so the hour was not convenient for either of us.  However difficult and inconvenient, we both ended up in a better place.   After the call, I looked at the email, still on my desktop–had I sent it, I probably would have taken a difficult situation and made it even worse.  However difficult, picking up the phone and having a conversation enabled us to address issues and have a clearer understanding that we could not have achieved through an email battle.

Recently, I’ve been an observer to another similar, but very public battle  (Why “Reply All” was ever invented astounds me).  These two individuals clearly had a disagreement, but rather than solving it, they decided to lob missiles at each other and an audience of about 15 other people.  It started over a relatively simple misunderstanding, but rather than pick up the phone and talking through things, they chose to fire at each other through the “safety” of “Reply All.”  In three or four exchanges, the situation escalated, each person became stuck in their positions.  It finally stopped, the problem wasn’t solved, it was only made worse.  Both parties are not speaking—it’s impacting the whole group, we are having difficulty moving forward.  I’m not certain the damage can ever be repaired.  I called each person to understand what had happened.  “Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call the other person,”  I asked.  “It didn’t even occur to me,”  was the response—from both parties.

We talk so much about having conversations.  We talk about engaging our customers, our employees, our stakeholders.  Conversations imply a dialogue.  Conversations include emotions and context.   Conversations involve listening and, potentially, changing our points of view.  However convenient and instantaneous email, twitter, instant messaging and texting may be, they are monologues.  No amount of happy faces can add the necessary depth and context to a phone or face to face discussion.

As I reflect on so much of what I see going on today, we are losing the conversation–to some extent, it seems we are avoiding the conversation.  We have great tools that enable us to quickly and conveniently express our thoughts.  We can email, tweet, text.  In many cases this is appropriate.  But if we really want a conversation, pick up the phone.

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  1. You know Dave, there are some of us out there who are not only guilty of avoiding the conversation, we have chosen the digital route even when the recipient was 20 feet away in a neighboring cubicle.

    So I will offer you a thank you for this powerful reminder but with the guilty conscience of having been the one avoiding the conversation.

    Well done!

    Paul Castain

    • Paul, I think it’s an “expediency” trap we all fall into. Part of the reason I wrote the article was as a personal reminder. Thanks, as always for the comment!

  2. Roy permalink

    Dave, an excellent reminder not to use the easy way out. I think we will find hardly anybody who was not at least once guilty of such behaviour.

    The worst is indeed to play this game in front of an audience. How can anybody expect that the recipient accept such a loss of face and not shoot back.
    I usually save my high charged emails as drafts. After a while I read it again and grab usually the phone or cut out all the anger and try to remember my Dale Carnegie.

    Thanks again and a good life

    • Roy: Thanks for your comment. I do the same thing, all my emails go into drafts, I count to 10, then decide if I am handling appropriately. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  3. David Olson permalink

    As others have already said – great article and great reminder for us all. At the risk of sounding very old fashioned … try sending hand written notes on occasion. It is noticed!

    I sometimes fear that email, texting etc, while great tools as we all agree, are actually changing us all into face-less video game images. It makes me sad. Yet I would be lost without my regular Blogs such as Partners in EXCELLENCE and all the convenience of these wonderful tools.

    Thank you for helping us use all the tools – even the telephone.


    • Old fashioned works! We tend to get lost in the new technologies and how they save us time–but when they reduce the impact or create the wrong impact, the time saved is meaningless.

      Thanks for the comment David!

  4. Dave, of all the your posts I’ve read, this is by far the best. The worst thing about email and non-verbal communication is that it can be interpreted so many different ways. People will also tend to say things they would never say to a person’s face. All of this can lead to bad mojo.

    I think people utilize email as a tool for passive-aggressive behavior. Your “reply all” story certainly illustrates that. Phone conversations, or better video-chat, or even better in-person makes people more civil right out of the gate.

    Most people want to avoid tough talks or confrontation. That is unless they can lob grenades from the safety of a computer fox hole.

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