We’ve all been there. Someone sends you an email asking you a question. You respond and ask for some clarification. Three days of back-and-forth emails later, you get fed up with how slow the discussion is going and call the other person. Three minutes later, you both have all the answers you wanted, and now sit there wondering why it took three days to conclude a three minute conversation.
There’s unfortunately not a lot of hard evidence out there for how best to leverage our varying communication and collaborative tools. I can find studies that show video is nearly identical with face-to-face for gaining trust, but I’ve found little that shows which tool is best to use when. I hope we can open that dialogue here.
Before the tips, lets look at the mediums we usually communicate through: Video (with Audio), Audio only (phone/VOIP), email, and instant messaging (IM/chat/SMS).
We call the first two (Video and Audio) synchronous because there is an immediate dialogue; points are conveyed and responded to immediately. The latter two are asynchronous because each time content is conveyed there may be a significant amount of time before it is received and responded to. Each step in an asynchronous dialogue can take from seconds to days (or longer) to be conveyed. In sychronous communication, all parties are working simultaneously (synchronously) on the discussion, whereas in asynchronous communication, parties are working on different parts of the discussion at different times (asynchronously).
Now that we know the landscape, when is the best time to use each tool?
How Much Discussion is Needed?
You may think that if you need an answer NOW!, you should stick with synchronous communication. “Dang it! I’ll just call him up and ask him!” Ah, but what if he’s not in? Not answering? Nowhere to be found. And, quite honestly, he’s a bit creepy and you really just don’t want to hear him breathe over the microphone.
Well, thankfully, a much better determinant about is: How much discussion is needed? If you’re looking for a simple answer that won’t likely require clarification, go to email or possibly a voicemail if you’ve tried to call. IM will work great as well, especially if the recipient is extremely busy and available for IM.
If the recipient is likely to respond with questions themselves, or you’re likely to ask more questions based on their answers, try a video or voice call. There’s no excuse to avoid human contact here because it will save time. Lots of time.
Knowing there will be a follow up question is a sure sign of an actual discussion. If the recipient is not available, send or leave an asynchronous message asking them to call you back as immediately as possible. Unless you can start working from a partial response, don’t ask for the answer now. That opening scenario with email has happened to everyone I know, and it’s because once a topic goes into discussion via email, people tend to keep it in email.
A warning against texters who claim they can happily hold entire lengthy conversations via chatting: It creates a distraction from the other work you could be doing and I guarantee you can talk faster than your thumbs can type.
Without following this most important tip, you will relive the scenario I opened this post with. Guaranteed.
Do You Need a Tailored Message?
This is a great use of email. IM tends not to seem professional. Synchronous communications are more likely to create faux pas. If you only need to send a message one way, and any response from a recipient would actually become a separate discussion, then take advantage of email’s ability to be written, edited, rewritten, approved, and then sent.
If you don’t need immediate real-time feedback, it’s the obvious choice.
How Busy are You?
You can make yourself available for people for those emergency “I need an answer NOW!” moments by staying available for IM. If you’re super busy, don’t pick up the phone, only glance at email headers (if you look at them at all), and only engage IMs where the response can be quick. If someone wants a longer response, either don’t chat back or ask to call them later.
LIKEWISE, if you’re suspicious someone is busy, or you’d like to talk to them synchronously but are not sure if they’re available, IM is a great way to touch base and ask for the deeper communication: “Hey, when you get a chance, can you VSee me?”
Is There a Negotiation (or Conflict Resolution) Happening?
It’s one thing for a client to send an unhappy email. It’s another beast entirely if there is a dispute between yourself and a vendor, or a potential customer feels misled, or you yourself feel slighted. In the former case, you can craft a reasonable email response and let them know you care and are looking into the matter. In the latter, the lack of personal interaction removes response inhibitions and fosters paranoia. Admit it, we’ve all responded to emails we felt slighted us with even angrier emails. Rather than resolving a conflict, asynchronous communication tends to inflame it.
Only respond to incendiary communications asynchronously if one of the parties is unable to communicate immediately. Only ask to schedule when to talk by phone or, better still in these cases, video/face-to-face. And before sending that invite, you probably want to sit on that text or email for five or ten minutes before sending it, just to give you time to cool off and reword anything you might regret when you finally get the other parties into a synchronous discussion.
That’s Plenty of Tips
There are quite a few scenarios I’ve left out. Perhaps a few readers can add some. Somewhere out on the net someone had made a communication flow chart, and I was hoping to link it here, but now I can’t find it. If one of you see it, please let me know. And post your own suggestions and tips about when to use what medium to communicate! It’ll help us all.