My involvement with Blinder (the PR tech startup where I’m a co-founder) has seen me take a deep interest in modern communications technologies, and whether they help or hinder us from communicating with each other appropriately.
One day, I hope this will help me to become a better communicator myself. For now, at least, it’s helping me to see where my own communications methods may be lacking.
Like a tense situation I had to navigate a few weeks ago.
On this occasion - a consultant (who was working on a significant personal project of mine) sent me an invoice for some rework that I felt was their responsibility. There is a lot that I admire about this consultant, but I had become frustrated during the course of the project by their tendency to do things “off the record”.
So instead of picking up the phone, I decided to follow up by email and document the history of this particular issue from my perspective. My correspondence was professional, courteous, and rather frank, and we eventually reached a financial resolution that I was comfortable with.
But while I may have “won" this particular battle, I’m not really sure I won the war. The consultant did not respond favourably to my non-verbal mode of communication (to say the least), and I fear the relationship is now a lost cause.
I’m left wondering whether I could have resolved the issue in a way that did less harm to our relationship. Perhaps not, but it's worth thinking about.
I share this story to highlight a very modern communications dilemma. We now have many new modes of communication available to us, which are all rather convenient, but which also give us convenient reasons to avoid speaking to each other.
It’s easy to rationalise why we choose to communicate in certain non-verbal ways - like my “get this on the record” rationale above. But often the real reason - if we’re really honest with ourselves - is that we prefer to avoid difficult conversations. It just feels easier to send an email, or a text, or write a cleverly worded and grammatically perfect letter with a quill pen.
At least I can take some comfort knowing I'm not alone on this.
As reported in this Forbes article, text messages now outrank phone calls as the dominant form of communication among millennials. This Time article suggests that the phone call is a dying institution, and raises some concerns about our increased reliance on non-verbal modes of communication.
The Time article quotes MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle (one of the leading researchers looking into the effects of texting on interpersonal development), who believes that having a conversation with another person teaches kids to, in effect, have a conversation with themselves — to think and reason and self-reflect. Skills that she says are a bedrock of personal development.
Turkle goes on to explain that “part of the appeal of texting in these situations is that it’s less painful — but the pain is the point. The complexity and messiness of human communication gets shortchanged. Those things are what lead to better relationships.”
The implications seem more serious for millennials than for more “mature” folks like myself, who were supposedly fully developed before the advent of email and messaging. But I have three young sons (the first born in 2007 - the year the first iPhone was released), so I'm still anxious for them.
Technology keeps giving us more ways to avoid direct verbal communication, but it seems our species really has evolved to talk about shit - however messy, difficult, complex, and anxiety-causing that shit may be. As uncomfortable as these conversations can make us, we need to remember that speech is still the best form of communication we’ve ever invented, especially when it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships.
PR to the rescue?
In a previous post I mentioned a possible link between technology and a breakdown in relations between the media and celebrity newsmakers. Perhaps one contributor to this breakdown is that the internet simply provides these newsmakers with more ways to avoid actually speaking to journalists?
It’s worth noting that many newsmakers now fall into the millennial ranks themselves. And while they may feel completely justified in avoiding difficult conversations with journalists (or their critics, or their parents), the ultimate trade-off may well be their own personal development.
That’s food for thought for anyone involved in public relations (which we all are really, if we take the term literally).
As Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote about ‘PR types’ in The Cluetrain Manifesto - “their job - their craft - is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it.”
To bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it. That's a job that’s worth doing really well.
Technology has provided us with many convenient and efficient ways to communicate with each other, and many ways to protect ourselves from actual conversations that are important to our relationships and personal development. Perhaps the emerging PR tech industry can help lead us out of this minefield, with new technologies that help bring us all back into conversation.