How to say it right ?

14 Apr

Have you ever thought about how to let somebody know that he sucks at his job? Surely, it is an option to say it straight to his face. But imagine that this person is on your team, sitting in an office that is thousands of miles away from yours – not an unusual outcome of globalization. You and this person regularly communicate via eMail and phonecalls – how would you phrase nonproductive work now?

Usually, it begins with appreciation followed by a big fat ‘but’ and some recommendations for further improvement. This is how you learnt to criticize in college. So you have a big text eMail or a long phonecall in which you cushion your criticism. But what if it is not an exceptional case? How often would you try to express your criticism that way until you say: Enough!

The problem is that our usual ways of communication nowadays are limited. Take the phonecall as a first example: Beside the actual speech, the sender usually communicates subtextual content such as body language and personal emotions because he is actually concentrating on the issue the phonecall is about. Now see what happens:

Phonecall Barrier

Phonecall Barrier

All the effort spent by the sender to create message quality is interrupted by the barrier of the phone. The receiver just receives the actual speech. However, a receiver skilled in communication is able to recognize certain subtextual content in the speech sent by the receiver. But the general case is: A lot of important information is lost. This problem is also part of the known studies by German researcher and professor Schulz von Thun who developed the four sides model (aka communication square or four ears model) in the 1970s. He is considered to be the pioneer of communication psychology.

So how to say it right in case you cannot say it right?

Many corporations invest in development of communication skills among their employees. But in my opinion there is clearly a lack of research on this area. Many companies outthere offer training on general eMail writing – but the recommendations are always more or less the same: clear structure, no emotional icons, no typos, appropriate salutation etc.

I could only find a few companies focusing on the actual content and its design. My guess is that it strongly depends on the matter of the eMail. The other day, a colleague told me about his method: He writes up a nice text with all his criticism and deliverables for the receiver cushioned in it. At the end of his eMail, he outlines the core deliverables once again (or the core message of the eMail). This time in a very distinctive way – as a conclusion, he says.

What about an eMail that just says its message straight away? Would it make people feel offended? Could it influence peoples’ motivation? Or would it just be easier (and faster) to process for the receiver? Answers to these questions would require further psychological investigation – my guess here is that it depends on the individuals’ psychology how the actual message comes across.

Ultimately, all the skills about how to say it right are only the first step to successful communication in nowadays business. Another important barrier is the informational overflow that many businesses have to deal with. How are you supposed to read, understand, process and answer a daily average of 30 eMails? But that is a whole new story…


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  1. Matt

    14. June 2011 at 6:11 PM

    I like the phonecall barrier haha