Don’t Assume the Worst

It’s a quick way to derail communications and set yourself and others up for disappointment.

When I asked communications expert, Dr. Nick Morgan, for his one best piece of advice for anyone who wants to be a more effective virtual communicator, his answer was quick, simple and powerful, “Don’t assume the worst.” Here’s the backstory on why Nick offered that advice and how you can apply it for positive outcomes.

Towards the end of last year, I interviewed Nick about what he learned in writing his latest book on how to communicate effectively through virtual platforms like email, text, and video conferencing. The book is called Can You Hear Me? and I highly recommend it.

Nick is a true expert on the art of interpersonal communication and, I think it’s fair to say, is not a fan of virtual communications when direct person-to-person three-dimensional communication is an option. But, Nick is also a realist and, because getting work done relies more and more on virtual communications every day, he wrote his book to help leaders make the best of a challenging situation.

One of the points Nick made in our conversation is that virtual communications often go nowhere or, worse, go off the rails is because we can’t get all of the sensory input we get when we communicate in person. When you’re in the room with someone, you intuitively process things like their body language, tone of voice, breathing, micro-expressions on their face, and all kinds of other subtleties that let you know whether or not you’re tracking with each other. The information data set is much richer in person and that’s why face-to-face communications is almost always more effective.

Almost all of those kinds of input get lost in virtual communications. Think about it, how often do your emails get misinterpreted? When was the last time you had a conference call where you knew people were multi-tasking during the call and not really tuning in? (Maybe because you were multi-tasking too.) If you do video conferences, you’re probably used to some people not turning their cameras on or maybe there’s one camera for a whole room full of people sitting around a conference table and all you can really make out are unidentifiable human forms, forget about facial expressions.

Because we don’t get all of the information we need in virtual settings, Nick and I agreed that we usually suffer from sensory deprivation in those situations. We end up in an information vacuum and tend to fill that space up with a bunch of assumptions, stories, misperceptions and other junk that just doesn’t help.

What can you do about it? Here are a few ideas:

  • Communicate in person whenever you can.
  • Take the time to learn more about the other people involved and what they care about.
  • Remember that they’re human beings and not just functions of production.
  • When you engage in virtual communications, make an effort to be really present and watch for the gaps in understanding and circle back to fill in the gaps.
  • And, when all else fails, don’t assume the worst. Most people are operating with positive intent. If they’re frustrating you or ticking you off, slow down, take a few deep breaths and check your assumptions.