If your small business is transitioning to work remotely, the way you communicate will have to evolve. Our reliance on tech-driven communication, whether its email, videoconferencing, or platforms like Slack, is already becoming the norm. 

It's more important than ever to pay close attention to how you communicate. The nuances of your choices can have a big impact. Whether you intend to or not, you can much more easily cause others to lose face. 

Here are four tips to help avoid any miscommunication.

1. Raise your human antenna.

Whether you're leading a virtual meeting or facilitating a team brainstorm on a Slack channel, take a step back and become more aware of the signals your team is sending. What's behind a pause in typing, a brief silence on a conference call, or someone's shifting body language on a videoconference? Nonverbal cues can give you the information you need to best lead a remote team. Do people feel safe? Are they fully contributing? Are they engaged? 

2. Know your audience. 

When using technology to communicate, think about whom you are speaking to and whether you need to provide more context to your message.

When working with new team members, be aware that some of the common ways we bond with others--like inside jokes or references--can reinforce an insider-outsider dynamic that might cause people to feel excluded.

Are they native English speakers? If not, avoid language that can confuse or alienate, which can include sarcasm, culture-specific humor, or figurative language tied to exclusively Western concepts (baseball metaphors like "hit a home run," for example). 

3. Assume the best intentions.

Subtext and nuance are often lost in written communication, because helpful cues like body language and tone of voice are missing from a person's message. Although it's easy to jump to conclusions, don't assume the worst. Ask questions, and, if possible, hop on the phone with someone before firing off an angry retort.

One of my clients recently emailed a remote worker to ask him to complete a project by a certain day. The worker immediately replied with just this: "No way." My client was taken aback. How could he be so dismissive and disrespectful? He started writing an angry response, but then stopped and took a moment to think. This employee had been on the team for a year, and had always been hard-working and polite, he thought. There must be something else behind those words. A quick phone call cleared it all up: The worker was facing two other deadlines that same week, and wouldn't be able to juggle all three. Why the curt reply? "I didn't know it was rude. I see Americans doing that on TV shows and movies, and I wanted to be direct--like Americans!"

For my client, knowing his audience would have been the first step. But he took the next step and gave someone the benefit of the doubt--asking questions before reacting with anger.

4. Beware of public criticism--or praise.

Remote teams will often use platforms such as Slack to communicate, with messages often in view of everyone on the team. How we communicate on these platforms can lead to others losing face if we're not careful.

One of my clients recently received some critical feedback. Slack is her main method of communicating, and she'd often use the platform to give direct feedback to specific team members--in full view of everyone else. Mistakes were pointed out, and her language was "brutally honest," causing the people whose errors were broadcast to feel embarrassed and humiliated. She had started to create a fear-based culture, with the members of her team scared of making mistakes and losing face and credibility.

My client's intentions were noble--she was just acting out of efficiency. But the effect was harmful. After receiving this feedback, she started taking all direct-feedback conversations offline.

If critical feedback in full digital view of others can cause someone to lose face, can praising someone do the opposite? Again, know your audience. Don't assume everyone is comfortable with public recognition just because you might be. Always treat everyone as unique individuals, not with a one-size-fits-all leadership approach.

In this current world and the one that awaits us, we must remember that thoughtful communication is key, no matter the medium.

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Published on: Mar 18, 2020
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