Last week, I was facilitating a client workshop on how to authentically apologize. The group was discussing poor apology examples and one attendee mentioned that they received an apology via instant message on a fairly important issue.
While this may have been better than no apology at all, the decision to communicate an apology by instant message clearly left a poor impression with this person. It highlights an issue that comes up often when many of us handle tough situations:
We use the wrong medium.
The vast majority of us will attempt (consciously or not) to make uncomfortable situations a little more comfortable. One way we do this is to change communication mediums in order to distance ourselves from the discomfort.
There’s a communication ladder we have available to us. At the bottom of the ladder are things like instant messages and text messages. These communication mediums are good for fast and simple messages, but lack the richness that we get from in-person communication, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and in-the-moment responses. As we move up the communication ladder, conversation becomes richer, deeper, and more personalized…but also require a greater time and energy investment.
Probably one of the most common mistakes when communicating in a tough situation (like a disagreement, apology, or argument) is to move down on the ladder by a step or more. If we normally interact with someone via phone, our natural tendency may be to send a message by email when a tough situation emerges.
We do this of course because it lessens discomfort. It’s easier to just write a text message or email, hit the send button, and consider the situation resolved. Plus, it’s great for us: we get to tell ourselves that we addressed the problem while avoiding any uncomfortable dialogue that might have occurred.
Of course, good leadership isn’t just about us. It’s about creating environments where people can achieve a larger vision. Taking a step down on the ladder in tough situations might may feel better on our end, but it often leaves the other party with the impression that we are avoiding them, unwilling to tackle difficult issues, or unable to apologize. Over time, this diminishes our credibility.
My challenge to all of us this week is to take a step or two up the ladder when handling tough situations instead of stepping down. If you normally interact via phone with someone, go see them in person when a tough situation arises. If email is standard for your interactions, pick up the phone when there is trouble.
Question: What’s a situation where you’d be likely to take a step down the communication ladder? What’s one thing you’ll do differently next time? Leave a comment below.