From contacting customer service to keeping in touch with family and friends, more and more of our communication takes place with the click of a mouse or the touch of a button. In fact, texting has been the dominant form of communication for over a decade. While technology makes staying connected quick and easy, it can also pose a problem: When we receive a message over text or email, we have no facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice to give us more information.
Without these cues, we construct stories about why someone said something—and then respond to that, rather than what was actually said. That’s why it’s so easy to misread an email or a text, even when it’s from someone you know well; virtual interactions are a breeding ground for miscommunication.
Left to our own devices (literally), we often assume the worst—and the resulting miscommunications can be disastrous. The key is to slow down your response so you can create clarity and catch assumptions in action. Activate your inner digital detective by asking yourself these questions before hitting “send”:
1. What am I assuming?
Think about how you typically react when you receive a cryptic email or text: Do you search for clues by overanalyzing the sender’s punctuation and emoji use (or lack thereof)? Do you instantly think of a response to push back and defend yourself? Scan for thoughts about what “must” or “should” be true—these are red flags that you’re making an assumption or jumping to a conclusion. Here are some examples:
- A colleague sends a short email: “We need to talk about yesterday’s meeting.” She must be upset. You anxiously scan your memory for mistakes, wondering what you did wrong.
- You contact a friend about dinner plans. Instead of eagerly confirming, your friend texts back ”Hope to make it.” You’re overcome with sadness. They must not be excited to see you.
- Your spouse sends a text that they’re stuck at work, so you’ll have to pick up the kids. You flush with anger: He should know that you’re busy, too!
2. What’s my evidence?
Check that you’re not using your emotions as evidence that something is real, i.e., “Because I feel this way, it must be true!” This is a Thinking Trap called Emotional Reasoning. To separate what you know from what you feel, read the message again through a neutral lens. What do you know, objectively, to be true?
Use this evidence to put the message in a larger context:
- Yesterday’s meeting was informative, not critical. I have no reason to believe that my colleague’s tone is negative.
- My friend is always happy to see me when we get together. I should give them the benefit of the doubt.
- I know my spouse cares about me; he’s been feeling overwhelmed at work lately and needs some extra support.
3. How should I respond?
When in doubt, ask for more information. You’re better served by the assumption that the sender has good (or at least neutral) intentions—but even if there is a problem, a calm or clarifying follow-up lays the foundation for a productive conversation. Be sure to use open-ended questions that require more than a yes or a no.
- Asking your coworker, “What would you like to discuss?” sets a better tone than “Is something wrong?”
- A simple check-in with your friend, such as, “Everything okay?” shows that you care and opens the door for a larger conversation.
- Approaching your spouse with a suggestion, rather than an accusation, can transform conflict into a conversation: “Let’s set aside time to go over our schedules together to keep this from happening in the future.”
Still feeling unsure? Pick up the phone! Research has shown that hearing someone’s voice is an especially powerful mode of communication—even more helpful in decoding emotion than seeing someone in person.
Even though text and email are instant ways to get in touch, you should pause to check in with your emotions before hitting send. You can foster thoughtful communication even when you don’t have the luxury of being face-to-face.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist and wellbeing expert. For over 15 years, she has been helping consumers live healthier, more fulfilling lives, writing for outlets such as The Boston Globe, Time, and Women’s Health. Kara has also collaborated on several books on women’s health and resilience. Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin