Instant communication – the value of balance, focus and ‘farts in skillets’

Multiple channels for connecting with others heightens the speed of interacting, as well as the risk of failing badly and fast. Take a breath and pay attention.

I remember the exact date that I first realized that having twins was challenging.

It wasn't the day they were born, or the two years they didn’t sleep. It wasn’t when they were both in the ER the same day, or when one of them become an inpatient for five days. It wasn’t when they became teenagers. It was the day that they became freshmen and we had to attend orientation for their sports.

My husband and I attended all the relevant general information meetings. Then, we had to split up to attend concurrent meetings—for the girls’ softball team for my daughter, and the boys football team for my son. I listened carefully to all the commitments, communication tools and engagement that we were “required” to do, as “good” parents, to support the team.

I left stressed out over my new commitments – only to discover my husband had a whole set of additional commitments, communication tools and engagement requirements from the football meeting. We now must communicate through three additional sports apps, layered onto the ever-growing sport communication apps installed, five new accounts to follow and monitor on two social media apps (one of which I have used only for work), two more ways to pay electronically, and other apps for a plethora of different needs.

Why do I share this? Because it reminds me of work/life communication and how distracting, alert fatiguing, disjointed and disengaging it is to have communication coming from 42 different directions.

Can I truly say I am a good listener with all these communications being tossed at me? This multi-channel environment doesn’t necessarily make us more productive – I find myself asking, “Now, where was I?” or “What was I doing?” more often than ever before.

We are truly not capable of multitasking – lack of focus means dropped deadlines and increased opportunity for errors. Ultimately, too many channels increase the likelihood of sending the wrong message to the right person or sending the right message to the wrong person. It heightens the risk of missing a message because the intended recipient didn’t look at a communication platform that is used only once in a blue moon.

Two things have helped me balance communications and respond successfully.

The first is whether an organization is committed to standardizing on a collaboration tool set. This enables all users to stop monitoring different IM platforms and instead focus attention on a single one, increasing the likelihood of awareness, response and streamlined communication.

The second is that I must focus on what I can control It’s what I call the “fart in a skillet” communication world I live in (all over the place, here one second, there the next). This is an old adage from an earlier, traditionalist generation that perfectly describes our communication environment today – I remember my grandfather using it to describe the sometimes chaotic messaging that surrounded his work as an microwave/satellite communications engineer.

There are some general guardrails to manage life in a multi-channel world, especially when you are communicating asynchronously and not directly. In these cases, it’s important to focus on how you communicate; seek to ensure you understand fully when you cannot observe body language or “hear” the tone of voice of those with whom you are speaking.

Anna Turman

Emotionally intelligent people are aware of their emotional state and how it affects their conversations with others. They are able to use this information to manage their emotions, even in a situation that is not face to face. It is more difficult to actively listen and intelligently gauge the emotional environment when you cannot see or hear them talking.

Here are four tips to help communicating via instant messages, emails or texts:

Confirm you understand; check back. This is something I learned from healthcare, the teamwork tools contained in good ol’ TeamStepps, the well-known acronym behind Team Strategies and Tools to Enhance Performance and Patient Safety. Using closed-loop communication to ensure you understood what the receiver was intending.  For example, respond with “Can I clarify what I have read...” or “So am I right in thinking…” The key for in-person listening is to listen as you were going to repeat back; however, in chat or email, you may need to actually repeat back some portion to clarify understanding.

Focus on the people; be socially aware. You cannot control how their day is going or how they are feeling; therefore, frame things positively and be more judicious with your vocabulary to compensate for not being able to watch non-verbal cues or hear their tone of voice. Someone may misperceive your intentions based on their experiences that day. This is difficult when you cannot be socially present to observe their interactions. Additionally, I personally wouldn’t trust emojis to tell me how someone is truly feeling.

Listen deeply; connect the dots. Some chats and emails tend to come through with too much information and are a bit verbose in telling the story. This is a byproduct of our urgency to communicate quickly, which leaves the recipient with the job of having to connect the dots. We need to take time to connect the dots for our message recipients clearly and concisely. Most importantly, know when it's time to pick up the phone. In these cases, focus on only that conversation at that time without distraction, or the conversation will take a wide right turn when you need to go left.  Jumping between conversations or “Context Switching” affects your focus. You cannot do your best thinking, understanding or decision making when your attention is scattered across 12 ongoing topics of e-conversing.

Quality check; slow down. As we chat, we often do it in a quick manner, increasing the likelihood of misspelling, poor sentence structure and other informal word choices, which makes it more difficult to understand what is being asked or stated. (A moment of humility here; I am the worst with sentence structure when I chat). If possible, take a minute to re-read what you wrote before you send.

As we get spread thin by the multitude of communication channels we must manage, and the pressure grows to respond quickly to every electronic message, it’s crucial for message senders to be effective and accurate communicators. My best advice is to be thoughtful, good stewards of what channels to use and when—otherwise, you risk becoming one of the “farts in someone's skillet”—yes, they heard you, but they’re running from you or the meaning has been lost.

Anna Turman is system vice president and CIO for the CHI Health and MercyOne divisions of CommonSpirit Health’s IT and digital efforts. 

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