Reading Between the Lines

I used to be able to read how people were feeling by observing their body language. Now communication is mostly over email and phone and that makes it harder for me to get clues as to what a person is feeling or how a person is reacting to what I have to say. Any suggestions?


THOUGHTS OF THE DAY: Any skill gets better with practice, including reading clues as to how others are feeling and reacting. It takes time and patience to figure out the signs. Interpreting what’s going on around us is key to more effective leadership. Start with your own communication.

The more comfortable you are at dealing with emotion-laden conversations, whether in person or virtually, the more likely you’ll be able to capture and interpret the clues that are coming your way.

Think about how much effort you put into diagnosing what’s behind the messages being sent to you. How open are you at hearing “hard truths” — things that might not be so complimentary but are nonetheless true. How likely is it that you’ll correctly hand out praise or deliver negative feedback in a way that motivates someone? Build your interpretive skills and you’ll improve your ability to read others’ communications in any form.

Wipe out all the assumptions you have about the person with whom you’re corresponding. Give them an opportunity to communicate with you without bias on your part.

For people with whom you regularly correspond, review every communication in an overall context. Is this typical, more emphatic, more critical, more congratulatory, more anything, than usual? In this situation, is the communication coming more quickly or slowly than usual? Typos and grammatical errors from someone who is usually precise can indicate the topic is more urgent to the sender.

Is the person speaking with personal conviction in first person — “I” — or trying to put words into other people’s mouths through the use of third person — “they.” The “I” messages are often believed to be more forthright and trustworthy while speaking on behalf of others can be interpreted as less honest. “I” messages can also signal that a person is seeking to be more noticed as in, “pay attention to me.”

Consider the modifiers that people use. Our interpretation of messages is influenced by the use of positive vs. negative words, with the tendency to believe more of what is said in the positive. Tone also has a multiplier effect. Be conscious when you’ve had multiple interactions with the same party and whether your perception is skewing positive or negative, accepting or challenging based on historical context.

Limiters such as “but” and “except” can be clues that what you’re being told is not a complete and forthright picture of what’s going on. When a correspondent is expressing ambivalence about a subject, he or she may really be expressing a largely negative interpretation or reaction.

The payoff for better interpretation of communications can be substantial: enhanced working relationships, better quality results and, ultimately, higher net income.

Ask direct questions to get to the information you want. Don’t beat around the bush, as you may distract the person with whom you’re communicating. If you suspect something is going on under the surface, just ask a simple question: Is something else going on? Is there anything else of which I should be aware? What’s the real problem here?

Take a look at the vibes your own email and voicemail communications send out. Be okay with a positive approach, as that tends to make readers and listeners more comfortable and ready to receive the rest of your message. When you’re on the receiving end, check out your bias and be willing to investigate motivation rather than making unconscious assumptions. Just because you can’t see them smiling, doesn’t mean they aren’t.

LOOKING FOR A GOOD BOOK? Try “Business Communication: In Person, In Print, Online” by Amy Newman and Scot Ober.


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