KEYBOARDS DON’T HAVE FEELINGS

This article was originally published in Inside Strata magazine.

In June 2021 I attended the SCA National Conference in Adelaide.  It had me out of the office for almost an entire week.  Upon touching down in Adelaide, I realised that I had forgotten to put the “Out of Office” notification on my e-mails.

I moved past the mild anxiety I began to feel when it occurred to me that I don’t exclusively deal with e-mails when I am in the office.  I am just as active with my e-mails when I am out of the office as when I am in it.  My office follows me wherever I go through the phone in my pocket.  Even though I was at a conference, I’d still be regularly checking and dealing with those e-mails, so there wouldn’t be much point to letting others know I was at out of the office for that week.

I wasn’t alone in that respect at the conference.  All around me others were on their phones and laptops during breaks or any quiet periods.  The prospect of facing hundreds (if not thousands) of e-mails upon a return to the office has made this a necessity. 

An “office” has become mobile to meet the expectations placed upon us by the market we operate in.  Research has shown that e-mail is the preferred method of commercial communication for 74% of all online adults[1], more than half of e-mails are opened on a mobile[2], and 70% of e-mails are opened within six seconds of receipt[3].

A survey the education committee of Strata Community Association (Qld) did of chairpersons over 2020 revealed that their leading expectations of a strata manager were knowledge, attention to detail and availability.  When asked what keeps them with their strata manager, those leading expectations were relationship, rapport and availability.   

The consistent expectation on both fronts was availability: so being available to respond promptly to their communications.  That would be an expectation any client of a professional holds.  It certainly applies to lawyers.  It’s a lesson I repeat to my team members: most clients will more readily judge the level of service (the promptness of communications) before they judge the quality of the service.

McDonalds Restaurants is an incredibly successful business because of the consistent and prompt service they provide – not because of the quality of the food that is served.  We all know that it must form part of a “balanced diet”, but we also know that we will get what we want quickly and the product will be consistent.  

There are dangers attached to the prevalence of e-mail communications.  E-mails can be an effective way to communicate on uncontroversial, routine matters, but that effectiveness drastically decreases on matters involving disagreements.

Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA, carried out a study in the 1970’s and 1980’s focused on a person delivering a message that involved disagreement, strong emotion or ambiguity.  The study found that the person receiving the message derived 55% of its meaning from the expressions and body language that were used, whereas the tone of voice conveyed only 38% of the meaning of the message, and the actual words represented a mere 7% of the meaning.  

We can learn from this that in communications involving disagreement, strong emotion or ambiguity, we can communicate 100% of our meaning effectively in person, 45% if we communicate it over the phone and only 7% if we rely on just the words used in an e-mail.

The warning about e-mails being “tone deaf” is not without scientific foundation.  Our e-mails can be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way because we deprive ourselves of the full potential of how we may best communicate the message.  

Being aware of this can assist us in more ways than building a relationship with our clients.  Strata communities wouldn’t exist without the people who live or own a lot in them.  People don’t always get along, and disputes can escalate when mishandled or positions are misunderstood.  

There is a trend towards trying to resolve disputes through written correspondence.  Tribunals and adjudicators will accept the mere exchange of correspondence as a reasonable attempt at internal dispute resolution before they step in to decide the dispute.  Conciliations are shifting to being held almost exclusively over the telephone, particularly in Queensland.  The public health restrictions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying this.  But the science doesn’t support this trend as being an effective way to resolve disputes. 

An e-mail sent on a controversial or disputed topic may have been composed with the kindest and most professional of intentions, but the reader will naturally import a tone into it when they read it out to themselves in their head.  The only way to avoid that is to pick up the phone or deliver the message in person.  So don’t be scared, give it a try – you may be surprised by the result.

[1] Retrieved from https://blog.vingapp.com/top-communication-tools-business-12-email-statistics/ on 30 July 2021

[2] Retrieved from https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Mobile-Has-Largely-Displaced-Other-Channels-Email/1016657 on 30 July 2021

[3] Retrieved from https://www.expertmarket.com/phone-systems/workplace-communication-statistics on 30 July 2021 referencing Jackson T, Dawson R, Wilson D (1 August 2003). Understanding email interaction increases organizational productivity.

About the author

Jason Carlson is a partner of Grace Lawyers.  He is also a director of Strata Community Association (Qld) and has been a member of its legislation committee for many years.

This information is intended to provide a general summary only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice.