As a very “unhip” mother, I appreciate the constant lifeline I have in my oldest daughter who is 11 going on 20. Because of her, I know who Billie Eilish is, understand the latest slang, and am quickly learning how to take some very “insta-worthy” pics on my iPhone. When my age and ignorance start to show, I’m happy to be her eager student. As much as I enjoy learning from her, I’m hoping she can learn a thing or two from me about how to balance this digital world we live in. As a connected preteen, I can’t help but worry and wonder if she will ever value classic communication principles that, even in in the age of digitalization, will help her build lasting relationships in her future.
To be fair, this risk is not reserved just for her generation. I’ve seen in myself and for myself a particularly concerning trend of non-response as we all become more reliant on digital forms of communication. Simply put, we all control our communication now - so we have the ability to ignore, screen, block, and defer. In our careers and personal lives, we’ve all experienced and likely participated in what I call “communication crickets” – my official term for sending or receiving emails, texts, or calls that get no response. I’m not talking about the creepy sales pitch emails or newsletter spam we all purposely avoid. I’m talking about communication between friends, colleagues, and acquaintances that, if nurtured, could actually lead somewhere.
We’re busy. We’re swamped. Or maybe we just don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes we don’t know what to say. We need a quiet place to draft something thoughtful, and by the way, a quiet place is not in the schedule until 2021 or maybe at midnight when we’re ready to drop. There are as many excuses as there are emails awaiting a response. Sure, plenty are valid, but the reality is that while we’re practicing response avoidance, we are actually crippling our ability to build lasting relationships, many of which could lead to incredible opportunity or open doors we never knew existed.
In my own career, I’m guilty, too. However, making the time to answer communication is the single most impactful thing I’ve done. Answering emails or calls led to grant funding opportunities, new sales relationships, and even unexpected job offers. The courtesy of a quick reply tells the person on the other side, “I hear you, I care, and I want to give you my time.” Acknowledgement is the quickest route to connection.
As every generation becomes more digitally distant and distracted, taking time for classic communication can be your secret weapon - the one thing that sets you apart from everyone else.
If you’d like to try to weave some classic tactics into your digital exchanges, here a few quick tips that have helped me:
1) Always respond. Responses don’t have to equal resolution. The classic holding note serves two purposes: 1) lets the recipient know you saw their note/call, and 2) buys you time until you can sit down and commit time to a more detail response. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to answer everything right away. This pressure often leads to avoidance. If you need time to research or digest something, a quick holding note, shortly after seeing the communication, goes a long way. No response, or “crickets,” typically leaves the other person worrying – “did they get my note?,” “did they not like what I said?,” or “should I email them again?” We’ve all been there and it’s not fun. Influence communication by setting an example – respond.
2) Make a list. Personally, I am a devout list maker. I know my weaknesses, which include forgetting about an email if I don’t add it to the list. I know I’m not alone, and this is another big reason for “crickets.” Our lives are busier than ever, which is why list-making can help us remember what we need to find our way back to. If you get a communication you know you need to respond to, send a holding note, and then add it to a list. I like to write things down in a physical notebook because the act of writing helps me commit something to memory. If writing is not your thing, there are so many digital lists and trackers available now, pick what works for you. The most important thing is that you pick a tool you’ll use. Block out a few minutes each day to revisit your list each day and see what you can tackle and when.
3) Set goals. Without a list and daily goals, I’m not sure I would accomplish much. I love the feeling of accomplishment even if the goal is “wash 2 loads of laundry today.” Goal-making works. There are plenty of studies to prove this, so apply goal-setting to your communication strategy. Only you know how much volume you can handle in a day, so only you can decide the best goal. It must be achievable - so if sending detailed responses to every communication in a day is not possible, don’t hold yourself to it. Be realistic. Treat nurturing relationships like any other personal or professional goal, and chances are you’ll feel good about what you accomplished.
4) Follow-through. The last tip is simple – do what you say you will do. Dropping the ball here, after you’ve made an effort to send a holding note, may actually hurt your relationship. This is where a checklist with clear goals is even more valuable. If you promised to get back with someone, add them to your list, set a time, and give your response some attention. Since you’ve sent a holding note, you can take the time to craft a thoughtful response. The most important thing is that you hit send on the email, reply on the text, or schedule the call – just do it. Then cross it off your list and watch what this approach can do.
This is a pretty simple formula, but in practice, it can be somewhat overwhelming - one of the main reasons a lot of communication is ignored. When I think of how this can impact relationships, I simply think of how it impacts me when I’m waiting on bated breath for a response from someone. We’re all human and if we’re honest, it feels good to get a response and know that someone else is equally invested in a relationship – whether personal or professional.
On the subject of humanity, the final piece of advice I’ll leave you with is this – check-in. Don’t sit and wait to hear from somebody – you don’t have to be the catcher. Regularly inventory your contacts and touch base even if you don’t have an official purpose. One of my first professional colleagues, who I have not worked with or lived near in over a decade, has remembered my birthday for 14 years. Every year, without fail, I get a happy birthday note on my email. Of course, he has the benefit of LinkedIn now to remind him, but he went out of his way long before a digital platform made this small gesture in vogue. I’ll never forget this simple kindness, and should I ever need services that his company offers, he is the first person I’ll call.
People are people regardless of all the digital barriers we’ve now built for ourselves. Nobody likes to be ignored, even if it is accidental. Remembering humanity in our communication will endear us to each and help make sure digital barriers don’t end up becoming digital walls.