Who Sucked the Understanding Out of That Message?

If you’ve ever sent a text and received no response, but then proceeded to make up the reason for their silence, you’ve experienced digital miscommunication. If you’ve sent an email, used ALL CAPS on more than one word, and been annoyed at the reply that blasted you in return, you’ve likely experienced…well, perhaps this is where we insert a phrase such as “here’s your sign” or “you might be miscommunicating.”

In all work environments, digital messages are commonplace and all the rage. But, in the excavation and safety industry, digital communication has not only become increasingly important to streamline operations, handle emerging issues, and stay in touch with those in the field, but some key downsides can get overlooked. Yes, there is an element of increased efficiency and productivity, but what does one do about the giant sucking sound heard when messages lack clarity and real understanding? How does one prevent all, or nearly all, of the real understanding of a message getting completely sucked out of most transmissions?

When we communicate face-to-face, we have a wealth of information available to us that helps us to understand what the other person is saying. We can see their body language, hear their tone of voice, and respond in real-time. However, when we communicate digitally, many of these cues are lost. We are left with only words on a screen, and it can be much harder to understand the meaning behind them. Think of it like this: A newbie is working with the suction excavator and it starts making an odd noise. Everything looks okay to the newbie but doesn’t sound quite right to those more seasoned. Experience with the equipment makes the difference. In communication, one’s experience with the person will often determine understanding. Texting someone you’ve met once can result in mixed messages and damage control that feels disastrous. When working on a construction site or in a dangerous environment, it is crucial that everyone involved is on the same page and understands what is happening, real time most likely. Miscommunications or misunderstandings can have serious consequences, including injuries or far worse.

How it Happens
One of the main issues is the lack of context. When we communicate in person, we provide additional context that helps the other person understand what we’re saying and in what manner. For example, if discussing a technical issue, we may use a diagram or point to a physical object to help explain it or demonstrate its functions and nuances. If we’re annoyed, there’s a look. This is much harder to do in a digital environment, where we are limited to text, images, gifs, shorthand slang, and stickers. That sounds like a lot of options, but they all lack real context. And IS there a “look” emoji?

Another problem is interpretation. Without the benefit of tone of voice or body language, it can be easy to misinterpret someone's words. For example, a message that was intended as a joke may be taken seriously, or a comment was meant to be helpful may come across as condescending. In today’s more vigilant and aware environment, one word can set off a tone of offense that then leads to significant conflict and a visit to a human resource person’s office.

“The more visual context you can provide, the easier it will be for others to understand your message.”

Lastly, there are practical concerns that make digital communication less effective. For example, many people communicate using instant messaging or email, which can be very convenient but also distracting. When we receive constant notifications and alerts, it can be difficult to focus on any one conversation or, in some cases, remembering what was even being said. The brain was not designed to handle the onslaught of constant notifications from three inboxes, two social media channels and your kid’s latest TikTok post. When trying to see them all, important details get missed leading to missing understanding and unnecessary frustration. So, what do we do to avoid such dastardly outcomes in a world where this kind of communication is clearly no longer just a phase, fad, or temporary option? Three things that are fairly simple:

Show ‘Em Your Face
One potential solution is to use video conferencing or other forms of real-time communication whenever possible. While this may not be practical in all situations, it can be a valuable tool for ensuring that everyone is on the same page. Seeing someone's face and hearing their voice can go a long way towards building understanding and trust. And yes, this one applies even if you’re old school and don’t like talking to someone while it feels as if they’re looking up your nostrils.

Paint the Picture
Next up, provide additional context whenever possible using visuals. This might mean including diagrams, photos, manuals, or even drawings with crayons on top of somebody’s work truck. Eighty percent of American adults are visual in their learning preference. Painting the picture, so to speak, helps convey clear meaning and with retention. The more visual context you can provide, the easier it will be for others to understand your message.

Watch Your Language
Lastly, while it’s no secret some language might be more colorful on a job site, in this case paying attention to the language, or words that you’re using, could have big benefits. Some profanity, while used as a noun, verb, pronoun, AND adjective, can add flavor but no greater clarity. Same with acronyms and texting shorthand. It's easy to fall into the trap of using letters instead of words in a text. The challenge is their meaning may not be familiar to everyone, outside your own teenagers. The same is true with acronyms, particularly in the excavation and safety industry, where technical terms and jargon are frequent. Take the time to explain any of these instead of assuming everyone is aware of their meaning.

Whether you’re dashing off a quick text and misspelled two words or 10, be patient when others look at you with their head at a tilt, call you with questions, or admit they feel like they’ve missed something. Communication, digital or otherwise, is not an exact science. Digital communication leaves a lot out when it comes to full meaning and in this business, the last thing you need is to exacerbate the challenge by going about your merry way thinking others were tracking with you and are working on their tasks and assignments, only to find you’ve wasted a lot of time not realizing the understanding piece was almost completely sucked out of your message. In short, that sucks, but with these tips, it can easily be avoided.

Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist, keynote speaker, and executive coach. For more information on her books, training firm or coaching services, call 1-866-382-0121, or go to www.ContagiousCompanies.com or www. LeadershipDevelopmentCenter.com.



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