With four generations in the workplace all interacting in their own characteristic ways, it is evident that the key to success is to be aware and mindful of each other’s differences in communication style. We know this, but we forget—especially when things get heated.
There is a good chance that one day you will end up in a texting war with a member of Generation Y. This might not be as bad as you initially think.
Of course there are pitfalls of trying to resolve conflict by text. When I asked my 16-year-old son what he thinks is the key to successful resolution of a conflict that is initiated while texting, he shared a wise insight on Generation Y: “We need to have the awareness to say: hey, let’s stop texting and start a face to face conversation.” Indeed, recognizing that moment, when one more response by text will do more damage than good and will not lead to resolution, is key to saving a relationship and resolving any difficult conversation.
Just as other people’s judgments of us are more about the other than about us, the way we read a text and how we interpret it says more about us than about the sender. As with all of our communication, communication by text is filled with projection of our beliefs, experiences, and values on the message and the other person. Because we are missing non-verbal cues, as we talked about last month, the effects of projection might be stronger when fighting over text.
Responding in the Moment
When a conflict develops over text, we may be tempted to respond in the heat of the moment in words we later regret. Harmful words may be softened later with kinder words, but the effect of the harmful words will linger on in the relationship.
Do you want to know how I feel? Read my emoticons!
A common way to express emotions over text is by emoticons. Even these often-cute little symbols can be a source of misunderstanding. Expressing your true emotions over text with words (versus emoticons) is more effective when an argument emerges. Make sure to express true emotions, rather than your unchecked beliefs or assumptions. Say: “I am scared” instead of “I feel threatened.” The latter is about our belief of what the other person is doing and is not a true emotion.
Emoticons cannot explicitly express our tone, meaning and intention. We are not programmed to communicate these important pieces primarily through words, when we are meeting in person. However, while texting, it is important to communicate tone, meaning, and intention with words to create full understanding.
The same factors that heighten conflict between two people conversing by text can contribute to peaceful resolution as well.
No Auditory or Visual Cues
Sometimes visual cues will serve as the matador’s red flag for a bull. There may be a tone or a gesture that pushes our hot button. Not having these cues available might prevent a strong reaction. When texting, we have to choose our words more carefully, to make up for a lack of nonverbal cues. This might open up an opportunity for you to practice more mindful and positive communication with just using words.
In the heat of a texting war, we forget that we have a choice. We do not have to respond immediately to a hostile text. It is okay to say: “Let me think about that and get back to you.” We may even choose to never respond. The beauty of fighting over text is that you can delay your response to a time you or the other person are more levelheaded, or after reflection on the next best step. You can read the message again later and reflection might give you a new perspective on the issue.
With respect, sensitivity, and care, conflict resolution by text could be a successful. Remember to ask for meaning and always assume good intentions. Most importantly, recognize when it is wise to pick up the phone or meet in person to work things out.
“How would this work for Millennials?” a Baby Boomer asked at a recent workshop entitled Listening for Leaders. In this workshop I talk about the importance of face-to-face conversation and how to apply skillful listening to resolve interpersonal conflict.
As good leaders do, this workshop participant presented me with a challenge. He asked me to offer a new perspective on the listening process in conflict resolution. He wanted to know how we become better listeners in the digital age.
More and more, we’re communicating via text, Facebook and Twitter. With attention spans becoming shorter, increased numbers of distractions and information overload on the rise, it makes sense to give this issue more thought. Indeed, Gen Y – that technologically savvy cohort of multitaskers born in the 1980s and later – makes up 36% of today’s work force. It’s high time we developed listening and conflict strategies for this coming generation of leaders.
So what are the challenges of listening via text message? For many, texting is not limited to sending information, such as a quick fact or an announcement of your arrival time. It turns out that only 30% of our text communication is informational. More people, especially those aged 18 to 28, are using the remaining 70% of their texts for casual conversations and relationship building. As in any casual conversation, misunderstandings by text are common and when unaddressed, can easily turn into conflict.
Many of you who have worked with me know that I have what I call “a kitchen table approach” to conflict resolution. In my point of view, there is no better way to work on resolving any conflict, no matter how big, than having a good heart-to-heart conversation at the kitchen table.
In a kitchen table conversation, a skillful listener listens for feelings and needs and makes meaning of the message by interpreting not only words (7% of the message), but also tone of voice, facial expression, body posture and cues that together comprise the other 93% of the message. It seems fair to say, therefore, that when we are communicating by text we are missing more than 90% of the information that we need to be good listeners. Is this a hurdle when trying to resolve conflict by text? Yes and no.
For most of us, face-to-face communication has been, and still is, the “gold standard” for interpersonal communication. And yet that is not the case for Millennials, who rely heavily on electronic communication in their daily interactions. When my daughter, for example, was in a conflict with one of her college friends, he apologized to her in a personal message on Facebook, an entirely acceptable form of apology in her eyes. Clearly her generation is poised to significantly challenge the gold standard, affect how we communicate with one another and change the ways in which we resolve conflict in the workplace and beyond.
Five Pointers for Skillful Communication via Text
After some contemplation and research, I realized that the listening process by text is not that different from listening in person. Because of the lack of non-verbal information in a text message, there is an increased need for excellent questioning skills and a higher level of awareness. So here are my suggestions for skillful listening to prevent conflict while having a conversation by text:
- Be clear about what you want to ask
- Ask open-ended questions, that cannot be answered with yes or no
- Ask one question at a time
- Stay away from “why” questions
- Ask for meanings of emoticons and subjective terms such as “good” or “comfortable”
Have you engaged in difficult conversations by text? How were you able to prevent a conflict? Please let me know about your experiences.
Next month in Part II I will discuss the pitfalls and benefits of fighting by text and what to do when conflict develops during text messaging.
A great resource is an article in Newsweek “Text Messaging and Conflict Resolution,” November 19, 2010.