We Don’t Talk Anymore
As I went through my Saturday morning ritual of reading the Edmonton Journal from front to back recently, a smile crossed by face as I read a story. It described clearly, for the first time, what I have been speaking about as a large part of my Talk Like a Leader presentation on communication skills.
I’ve been speaking about the problems that many people are having today, especially younger people, with workplace communication and having face-to-face conversations, instead of discussions over social media, or by email or text.
The confirmation came from a source that I never expected.
It came from Brian Simpson, Deputy Chief of the Edmonton Police Service. He was reacting to statistics showing that 10% of Edmonton’s police recruits don’t make it during training and drop out. He said policing takes good listening and speaking skills. He said some recruits are great at Facebook, but struggle with in-person communications and as a result, drop out before making it onto the police force.
He said the nature of the job is one-on-one, face-to-face communication and he added the inability for some recruits to engage people in high-pressure situations is a problem for someone who doesn’t have good communication skills.
Say It, Don’t Write It
I have said for several months that people in general are much better writers than they were a generation ago, but are also worse at verbal communication. Due to technology like computers, phones and the internet, we are writing much more than ever. This blog is a perfect example. I’m writing something that I wouldn’t have written 20 years ago. However that’s the way things work today. We get on Facebook and tell people about our world, our thoughts and comment on what others are posting. We comment on people’s photos on Instagram and on Twitter we find ways to say what we want to say in 140 characters or less. It’s great practice, but every time we write, rather than saying the words, we get a little better at writing and a little worse at verbal communication.
A generation ago when a person needed to talk to a client, they would pick up the phone and called, or spoke to the client face-to-face. Now chances are greater than they’ll send an email or text message. Each time that happens writing gets easier and verbal communication gets harder.
Use It Or Lose It
Look at it this way. Let’s say you spend much of your summer golfing. You get to be a lot better and your handicap goes from a 20 to a 7. You’re a much better golfer because you’re getting practice at doing it. Then one summer you decide you want to learn to water ski and do that whenever the weather allows, so you stop golfing. You do that a second year and by the end of the second year your golf game has gone to pot and you’re back up to an 18 handicap. But you are far better at water skiing than you thought possible two years ago. It’s the same with communication skills – use them or lose them.
We also see cases all the time of people sending bad news by email or text. Every time we get one of those messages we wished the other person would have told us in person, but then we do the same thing, because it’s becoming more and more difficult to have open, honest conversations with people where difficult topics need to be brought up. Email and text are much easier.
Imagine the opposite happening and you were forced to have a difficult conversation with a boss or co-worker every day. After a few weeks you would get pretty good at having difficult discussions. They would be no big deal because you would learn how to prepare and have them. I wouldn’t want your job, but you certainly would get better at having difficult discussions.
When I speak to younger audiences about this subject, I get some blank looks. I get the feeling everyone thinks all is well because they can communicate by email and text. We’re good. However I then ask how they do when they have to speak to a boss about a raise, or a promotion, or they need to talk to a co-worker to try get them to change some annoying behaviour. Right away those same millennials get uncomfortable.
I really wonder if we have raised a generation of people who have become so good at communicating in written form that they will have problems communicating verbally with people about challenging topics for most of their lives? We are now seeing the first wave of people in the workplace who have had en email address for most of their lives and have been texting longer than they can remember. It’s far too great of a generalization to say that younger people can’t communicate well, but I do sense having a difficult conversation is harder for younger people than older people who have been forced to talk to people for decades. You get better by doing.
The book Crucial Conversations quite rightly pointed out, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations – ones we’re either not holding, or not holding well.” That’s so true. These are conversations we’re not holding hoping the problem will go away, or if we are having the conversation it’s not being done very well. I’m not sure one is better than the other.
It’s Not Just Young People Who Aren’t Talking
I’m not suggesting that only younger people are having difficulty communicating face-to-face. It’s likely much the same for their Mom and Dad, who may be on Facebook for several hours every week, but have a difficult time talking to each other at the kitchen table.
When I speak about communication I mention John and Heather Smith, a married couple in their 30’s that I made up to illustrate a point. I talk about John getting to work at 9am and he writes on his Facebook page, “I want to wish my wife Heather Smith a happy 35th birthday. Honey, you’re a terrific wife, a great mother to our two children and my best friend in the whole world. The day I met you has turned out to be one of the best days of my life. I hope you have a great day today, because there’s nobody who deserves it more than you do. Love, John.”
My question then is, “What are the chances that John would ever actually say anything in person like that to Heather? I think we can figure out the odds.
My point is, people from all walks of life have replaced verbal communication with written communication. It may be the boss, who doesn’t want to tell employees their holiday benefits are changing and instead of doing it in a staff meeting he sends out an email on a Friday at 4pm and then walks out the door a few minutes later. It could be a manager who doesn’t like the service he’s getting from a supplier anymore, so he sends him an email to let him know their services are no longer required.
In so many cases we have become a society where we are avoiding difficult conversations and we’re doing it by sending written messages to express our feelings, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. When you call somebody to communicate bad news, you get the chance to show your human side, gauge their reaction, answer questions and build hope for the future. Your decision is the same, but the person who gets the bad news ends up with a better understanding of why the decision was made, gets their chance to talk and respects you for having the guts to call them to let them know your decision. They understand it was a call that wasn’t easy to make. They may not like the decision, but they respect you for making it and calling them to let them know.
In my opinion, people need to spend far more time working on their personal communication skills and far less with typing generic comments about somebody’s cute pet on Facebook.