Human Resource practitioners understand face-to-face social etiquette and communication protocols better than most business professionals. But, communicating online is much more complicated.
Although we can’t avoid the online pitfalls we all navigate every day, the natural empathy with which most HR pros are blessed can be used in specific ways to reduce frustration and increase employee engagement.
When things go wrong online it might be because you’re texting when you should be emailing, or emailing when you should be calling. It could be because you’re online with someone who’s younger or older, from a totally different culture, or charts the opposite quadrant of a personality profile. Even Skype and FaceTime drop important physical cues available to people meeting in the same room.
These online communication gaps won’t be solved anytime soon. So, it makes more sense to focus your attention and efforts on not getting irritated, paranoid or personally offended by those gaps. I believe it’s worth the effort, because reacting emotionally can derail business deals and even careers.
Backfill the communication gaps with empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another and is the most important step toward not taking the behavior of others personally. The following personal story is my go-to example of how empathy can work instantly to reduce stress caused by the behavior of others.
After my oldest son had just begun to drive, I was driving us on the interstate when a car ignored a yield sign and jumped in front of us. If the car had gone faster, it would have been fine. But, it slowed down and I had to slam on my brakes while cars and trucks all around us were driving 70 MPH and faster.
It scared me and after I yelled at the driver, my son calmly said, “Dad, don’t get mad. That guy might be old or a new driver like me.”
In that moment I remembered his fear of highway driving and my Mom who had recently been forced to stop driving. I thought about the other driver and how I could help him, rather than thinking of him as a threat.
That day I also realized that when you don’t take things personally, it doesn’t help the other person nearly as much as it helps you. That driver never experienced my anger or the dissipation of it. I’m the one whose stress and frustration was reduced by changing how I felt about the situation.
It’s the same when communicating with people online. When they don’t interact with you the way you think they should, you can stop taking it personally by thinking about their situation rather than your own. Because truth be known, at least in the business world, their situation is rarely that much different than yours.
Don’t let your imagination run amuck
When you email an introduction to someone you don’t know it’s likely you won’t be offended if they don’t respond, because they don’t know you. But, when you email a customer or vendor it’s different, because you have an existing business relationship. And, when you email a co-worker, you not only expect a response, you expect it to be timely and respectful.
When you don’t know why business associates are unresponsive or when they respond in an unexpected way, it’s easy to imagine negative motives toward you. It’s easy to take it personally.
That’s when it’s time to pause, observe the communication gap and practice empathy so that you don’t take it personally. This practice isn’t to let the other person off the hook. It’s to reduce your frustration so you can make logical, non-emotional business decisions.
People have varied styles and just like you, they have a lot going on
I’ve noticed that some older people use email like a walkie-talkie. When they send an email or a text, they expect a response, even if it’s “gotcha”, or “10-4.” Considering most late baby-boomers are children of WWII-era parents, it makes perfect sense.
But, other people born in the same era process email more like a bulletin board. They read messages, but don’t necessarily take action on them. Obviously, this email style doesn’t mesh that well with the walkie-talkie style. But, it more closely mirrors the style of the current generation of new workers! I find that encouraging and fascinating at the same time.
Regardless of their differences, people will always have more in common than not. Everyone experiences non-work problems and we all hold common aspirations for health, security, and fulfillment. When communicating in person or online, common ground can usually be found by slowing down, injecting empathy into the communication gap, and not taking the habits of others personally.