With the number of devices, apps and websites we use to communicate with each other—in life and in the office—it seems easier than ever to screw up even the most innocuous message. This tech-infused reality seems to go hand-in-hand with complaints about the tech savvy, particularly the millennial generation, and their propensity to use text, email or status messages to short cut difficult conversations. After all, it’s uncomfortable to squirm for an hour over coffee in order to break up with someone—or fire them—in person, whereas the discomfort can be limited to the few seconds before you press ”send” on the critically uncomfortable words themselves. On it’s face, this seems to make Marshall McLuhan’s point that “the medium is the message,” and that our decision to use low bandwidth media for sensitive topics sends a message all it’s own.
Is it wrong to fire someone via email? Yes! Is it awful to break up with someone over chat? Yes! (though if they fell in love online maybe it’s more appropriate to break up on line too…) Does this mean that our Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as a society is plummeting to new lows? I don’t think so.
“If your meaning is clear it will get through on any channel”
The Medium Is Not The Message
Marshall McLuhan was brilliant to recognize, in the wild west days of electronic media channels (1964) that the channel you used to send a message, particularly one with emotionally relevant content, mattered. When broadcast TV began to reach mass audiences, it had an impact that was unprecedented. Suddenly, millions of people could experience human communications simultaneously. TV could play “tricks,” visually and with a story, that had never been possible on the stage.
McLuhan was right to note that medium and message had a new relationship, but I feel he went too far in saying that the tools we use to communicate usurp the power of meaning itself. Of course, sitting in my 1980’s communications college class, I wasn’t brave enough to say this directly to my professor, but I believed it even then. Now, after a few more decades of experience with meaning, messages and communications channels (being a former marketer, executive coach, online products purveyor, writer and speaker) I can say it with authority: the medium is not the message. In my experience, when your meaning is clear you can get it through any channel, no matter how low the bandwidth.
Emotional Intelligence Uses All Channels
While it’s easy to say that having more devices and channels is making us worse communicators as a species, I think that’s too easy. Humans are humans, over any channel. Giving more people the opportunity to be heard by more people simply makes it more obvious that many of us are poor communicators and always have been. The plethora of channels simply makes this obvious. The solution isn’t fewer channels, it’s more skill.
I know this because as a practitioner and an observer, I see that people with high EQ are very effective at understanding what they want to say, understanding what others are saying and choosing the best communication channel available to facilitate a meaningful communication. Many millennials have these skills, too, precisely because they have had so many channels available to them from the time they could talk and type. (Not all of them are skilled, of course, but then not all of any group are good at everything. An anecdote does not a trend make.)
What does this look like?
A person lacking in EQ might inappropriately choose to escalate an email war by firing off an angry reply while keeping everyone on the cc list, whereas an emotionally intelligent person would initiate a potential de-escalation by picking up the phone, or texting the other party with an invitation for coffee.
A person with high EQ might deliberately use an intranet social status message to publicly thank a challenging employee who values recognition whereas a manager who struggles with emotional intelligence might not think to express gratitude to them—over any channel–in the first place.
In short, blaming technology for making you, millennials, or anyone else a poor communicator is the lazy person’s response to an opportunity we all have to step up our EQ game.
Mastering The Medium And The Message
What does it mean to step up your EQ game? If “the medium is the message” isn’t quite it, what is the right relationship between these things? Well, using emotional intelligence to help you choose your communications channel intentionally means taking responsibility for your meaning, no matter what channel you use to express it. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t have a precise understanding of what they mean to convey, in conversations, presentations, negotiations and—sadly—many Facebook messages and blog posts. They have a fuzzy idea that comes into focus as they start blabbing it out. I know this is a habit because I fall prey to it sometimes too. Expression does help us sharpen our meaning, but we don’t have to expose other people to our expression until we’ve honed it more privately first (lesson learned!)
The good news is that the short form status messages and maddeningly tiny keyboards are giving those of us who care opportunities to practice refining our meaning to fit in tiny spaces. The bad news is that these same technical limitations on otherwise high bandwidth channels provide those of us who don’t care an excuse to be terrible communicators more loudly and more annoyingly.
As with all tools, new tech can be used for good or evil. Use it to help you become a better communicator and you won’t need to worry about when to use text, email, face-to-face, phone or anything else. You’ll just know.