Friday, November 13, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Four: Silence on Email

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation (Oct 1)
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking (Oct 8)
Part Three: Silence in Consensus (Oct 29)
Part Four: Silence on Email

In this final installment, I'll zero in on the nuances of non-response in what has become the dominant mode of communication today: electronic. I think the first thing to take into account is that email communication is not equivalent for face-to-face communication, even though many of us pretend that it is. Instead, it's a fragment. When we're speaking to one another in the same room, there's plenty of non-verbal communication (or at least there is if you're paying attention). You have a decent chance of framing silence accurately because you have clues about pacing, facial expression, and other cues from body language.

With email, we have none of this to go by. Worse, some of us find it irresistible not to fill in the gaps with guesses. Here's a range of possibilities when your email correspondent doesn't respond (and there was no bounce message):

—Did they even get the message?
—Did they read it?
—Did they understand it?
—Are they having an emotional response?
—Do they not care?
—Are they ignoring you on purpose?
—Are they fine with what you've written and have no comment?
—Are they thinking about it?
—Are they preferring to discuss it with you live (in person or by phone)?

It could be any of these things, or even a combination. And guessing which it is—instead of asking—is about as smart as flicking lit matches out a window while driving through a drought stricken national forest. You might get away with it, but you also might start a conflagration.

As a free-lance consultant and as the main administrator of FIC—a national nonprofit with a geographically dispersed board and staff—I spend a lot of time writing reports, fielding inquiries, crafting proposals, monitoring tasks, and arranging logistics. In short, I send a lot of email where I'm looking for a response. One of the most challenging things for me is managing non-response.

Once I've gotten something out of my In Box and into someone else's, I frequently forget to stay on top of whether I've received a response (even when I've expressly requested one)—because my In Box is never empty and there are always others items clamoring for my attention. Thus, some portion of my time must be periodically given over to reviewing who owes me a response and is overdue. With as much grace and lightness as I can muster, I resend the original message, to stir the pot
with a nudge (as opposed to with a grudge). If I'm feeling the crush of many such items, it can take me more than a couple deep breaths to not feel resentful of having to ask twice (or three times).

The worst is when the recipient reports never having received the first email (and they're wondering why I'm so slow). Each of us is waiting on the other, progress is dead in the water, and the relationship is under strain (and technology was supposed to make our lives easier).

One of the tricky management issues with email is how you set the default. Can project managers, committees, or boards assume agreement if people with authority have not responded by a set deadline, or must they wait for all counties to be heard from? In other words, is the default understanding that non-response=assent? As you might imagine, it's important to be clear about this, especially if you make decisions by consensus, where it only takes one downward thumb to quash the deal.

If silence equals assent, then the danger is people not reading or responding to their email in a timely way, and decisions might be made or actions taken without thorough consideration. If however, you do not allow silence to be interpreted as agreement, then the danger is bogging down progress and demoralizing staff who have to keep sending out horses to round up the strays. What constitutes time enough to move ahead, and when are you rushing things? You have to pick your poison.

In the nonprofits I work with, we've adopted the protocol of adding "RSVP" to the subject line if a response is expected. Somewhere in the text, the question(s) will be spelled out and a deadline given for when answers are expected. This helps time-sensitive topics stand out in the flurry of email that most of us download daily. However, even though this helps, it's hardly foolproof.

I tracked response rates for one group I was doing staff work for last year. In a six-month period I posted 16 RSVP messages to the governing board and only once received a response form all eight members by the deadline. Every other time I needed to send out a reminder. Often I had to send the reminders more than once. Sigh.

There can be no doubt that we're in the Information Age. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean that all the information that crosses our bow has come of age, or that all the people we're trying to communicate with are under way and tracking. Beware the Shoals of Silence.

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