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Summary:

When 90% of what you do for work is based online, there are bound to be some glitches, and not just the technical ones. How do you handle the inevitable misunderstandings that come with today’s rapid-fire digital conversations and communications in the workplace?

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia

I recently experienced two instances of miscommunication in my work – one due to something I wrote in my professional blog and the other because of something I said in an email that went out to several people. The responses I received because of my digital missteps forced me to think more carefully about how I’m handling my e-words these days.

When 90% of what you do for work is based online, there are bound to be some glitches, and not just the technical ones. How do you handle the inevitable misunderstandings that come with today’s rapid-fire digital conversations and communications in the workplace?

I know I’m not the first one to put a pixel foot in a cyber-mouth. In the case of my blog, I had communicated a slight (in my mind) inaccuracy within a long, positive missive, but because I was writing about someone else’s company, that tiny error stood out to them as a major irritant. In the case of my email error, I expressed my opinion and understanding about a work process to a group of people and was subsequently “corrected” in front of everyone on the CC list.

I know that there is no way to totally avoid mishaps in our digital communications just like we can’t always avoid them by phone or face-to-face. But because our work involves a constant flow of email and online publishing, I’ve put together a few ideas for how we can all minimize misunderstandings or at least diffuse the fallout.

1. Be careful what you type. Whether you are emailing a client or co-worker or posting something to your personal or professional blog, everything you put out there is basically a permanent record. Even if you take it back or take it down, someone somewhere may have printed it out.

2. Step away from the keyboard. When we are confronted with someone else’s knee jerk reaction to something we’ve said in an email or online, we need to take some time before responding. Digital communications is so fast, literally at our fingertips. Avoid your own knee jerk reaction in response.

3. Keep it private. Even if someone else copies the entire team, make sure your response goes directly to the person who feels wronged. It is too easy to be trigger-happy with the send button and accidentally hit Reply To All so double check the To field before hitting Send.

4. Get a second opinion. When in doubt – and especially when you feel your heart pounding and pulse racing as you type your response – get someone else to read what you’ve written before you send it. Sometimes another impartial pair of eyes can catch your barely hidden barbs and words drenched in barely disguised vitriol.

5. Own up to it. If you’ve made a mistake, own up to it. That means publishing not only a correction on your blog but even an apology. In email, ask the “injured” part if they’d like you to apologize to everyone who received your first communication that started the whole problem.

6. Don’t dwell. Once the situation has been diffused, it is easy to keep rehashing it in your own mind or worse, in emails to others or on your blog. Just let it go. As long as you have behaved professionally, apologized appropriately, and resolved the conflict, there is no value gained from rehash.

Even though a major portion of my work involves online communications and publishing, I can’t say that I’m ever going to deliver my digital words perfectly at all times. But I can see that the perils of working online is that we all get a little lazy about things like common courtesy. And we all risk getting caught up in a tangled web of words as our fingers fly across the keyboard.

What do you do to avoid these digital mishaps at work? What have you done to fix the ones that you caused?

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  1. Along with the above, I also follow one rule:

    Whenever sending any email, read it again before sending.

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  2. A very wise mentor of mine said this: “Before sending, sleep on it.”

    This advice — along with careful proofreading — has probably saved my job several times.

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  3. Very simple tip: Cut and paste the original e-mail message into a new blank one; then you are forced to make a choice in the to, cc and bcc field who gets the reply/praise/criticism.

    It’s a reality check and makes you pause for a minute.

    Cheers,
    John Carson.

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  4. I resonate with this one. And oh how I’ve done time curled cringing .. not just because of what I just sent, but also because of the Skype mood message going out to clients… e.g. because of cross-connections with what’s playing in my iTunes.

    One thing I’ve learned is to be able to laugh at myself.

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  5. [...] people hear about your work for the first time.  In fact, with digital communication, it’s pretty easy to slip and give others a negative [...]

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  6. I try to separate my job from my blog, and when the two are connected in some way, I apply the “filter of death” :)

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  7. [...] the client. Emails are easy to delete and prone to misunderstandings, which is why for clients who make delinquent payments, it’s important to call them if you [...]

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  8. [...] It’s also important to have all communication in one interface used by all, such as a wiki, as opposed to private email communication between each member of the team. Basecamp and Web Office are other common tools used for this purpose. However, some rules must be established before everyone starts using these tools. What types of messages should be available for everyone to read? Are the contractors free to talk about their rates? Is the wiki or communication platform reserved for “business only” messages?  These rules are needed to avoid miscommunication. [...]

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  9. [...] With the “multi-va” team approach gaining a lot of steam lately in the virtual assistant world, the WWD article is timely. The article touches on several not-too-obvious potential pitfalls in working with virtual teams, such as accountability, consistent communication and even how to deal with when “the client keeps each contractor “blind” to each other’s work.”: It’s also important to have all communication in one interface used by all, such as a wiki, as opposed to private email communication between each member of the team. Basecamp and Web Office are other common tools used for this purpose. However, some rules must be established before everyone starts using these tools. What types of messages should be available for everyone to read? Are the contractors free to talk about their rates? Is the wiki or communication platform reserved for “business only” messages?  These rules are needed to avoid miscommunication. [...]

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