The Inevitable Clarification of Written Communication
You know the phrase, “The best laid plans….”? No matter how slowly and carefully we communicate in the flat medium of the written word, misunderstanding and confusion is inevitable. Rather than being frustrated, angry, responding, EXPECT it. You need to look forward to asking and answering questions that clarify meaning, especially at the beginning of the communication.
I’ve started teaching my next graduate class for the University of Denver online. As an instructor, I am comfortable with the learning platform, I follow instructional design principles and I do my best to communicate clearly. However last time I taught this course, 40% of my students posed the same two identical questions during the course of the class. I strive to write simply and clearly, so I was a bit deflated because I had obviously missed my mark. I thought I had been abundantly clear.
Then I chuckled, remembering that I am human, and reminded myself that taking a few minutes to clean up a confusing message is simply part of the ‘job’ of online facilitation. Period. The course’s virtual office made it easy to communicate, both questions were easily cleared up (and hopefully won’t recur this term) and the entire class was notified of the clarification in case others were also confused.
Done. Handled. Students served. Professor noted clarification and made changes to course documents for future classes.
It’s harder to “read between the lines” when we don’t have voice tone or body language to help.
The written medium is flat. It’s harder to “read between the lines” when we don’t have voice tone or body language to help. Misunderstood writing isn’t a shortcoming unless we don’t take the time to be clear in the first place, or if we won’t take responsibility for answering questions and clarifying meaning to the reader.
Virtual team communication, especially when written, is no different than an online class.
Verification of understanding and clarification of specific detail is, quite simply, normal. If clarifying communication on your team is not happening naturally, you must have other mechanisms in place to ensure the whole team has a shared understanding and agreement of it’s deliverables, and you might want to encourage conversation that verifies this shared understanding.
- Take as much time as needed to be sure your writing is as clear as possible before publishing or sending your written communication.
- Use the collaboration tools to confirm communications were received, read, responded to, or any other feedback loops you need in place. In other words, ensure the communication has been completed and understood.
- EXPECT questions. As I said, instead of thinking the receiver of your message is dumb or didn’t read carefully, instead of judging yourself as a poor communicator, just expect some back and forth until everyone understands the intended message.
- EXPECT newer relationships and teams to be more iterative until you get to know one another and settle into team rhythms.
- Add protocols and efficiency aids as they are needed. (For example, in my teaching, we have consistent, predictable due dates and engagement expectations throughout the week. I teach across global time zones, so we are asynchronous and much of the course learning happens in discussion that requires regular participation.)
If you commit to this kind of clear written communication and openness, as well as get into the habit of asking and expecting clarifying questions, you will save time and frustration for yourself and all your team relationships.
~ Trina Hoefling, Transformation Change Agent, co-founders of The SMART Workplace