Mass Miscommunication: How Misusing Digital Tools Undermines Results

By Geoffrey Tumlin

You fiddle with your smartphone under the table during an important meeting. You type an (error-ridden) email to a member while talking (distractedly) on the phone. You interrupt a sensitive discussion with your spouse to respond to a trivial text message. You use a social media platform to reconnect with an old friend, only to offend her (and others) with an ill-advised attempt at humor. You’re not some clueless boor: Everyone you know operates this way. In our device-dominated world, it’s what passes for communication.

Yes, at some point or another, we’ve all allowed quick and easy to replace meaningful and productive. But while shoddy communication is ubiquitous, it doesn’t have to be inevitable.

The very tools that enable us to maintain contact with people all over the world also distort our priorities, fragment our concentration, degrade our ability to listen, and scatter our attention. But like any other tool, our phones, computers, and tablets are inanimate objects. They aren’t the problem. We are.

This is the best time in human history to be a competent communicator. It’s true that it can be incredibly difficult to break free of the gravitational pull of distraction, expediency, self-expression, and excess that characterize so much digital-age communication. Yet if you are willing to consciously strengthen your communication skills, you can leverage unprecedented opportunities to connect productively and meaningfully with other people.

Here are 10 tips to help you shake off counterproductive communication behaviors and get better results personally and professionally.

Back up to go forward. (Remember how we communicated before we got our new devices.) The digital revolution facilitated hyper-communication and instant self-expression, but, ironically, made it harder for anyone to listen. There’s just too much chatter clutter getting in the way (Just consider the frenetic activity happening on Twitter at any given moment!). To make the most of our conversations, we need to remember how we connected effectively with others before we had smartphones and computer screens.

Implementing three guiding habits—listen like every sentence matters, talk like every word counts, and act like every interaction is important—will help you be more present in conversations and will improve your digital-age communication. These old-school guiding behaviors will help you become a better communicator—not perfect, but better. That’s a goal that’s well within your reach and one that will immediately improve your quality of life.

Invert your expectations. (Lower your hopes for your smart devices.) Because technology does a lot for us, it’s no surprise that we’ve collectively fallen in love with it. But in our enthusiasm for what our tools can do, we’ve lost sight of the people behind the tools. It’s time to turn that around. Our devices don’t possess the communication abilities we think they do.

A tech-centered view of communication encourages us to expect too much from our devices and too little from each other. We assume that hitting “send” means we’ve communicated, when really, the other person may not have understood the message at all. Until we restore a more people-centered approach, we will continue to feel unsatisfied and unfulfilled by our interactions, despite having the most powerful connection and transmission devices in human history in the palm of our hands.

Lose your friends. It’s not unusual to be superficially connected to large numbers of people, and it’s way too easy to send hundreds of marginally important messages, chat with distant acquaintances, and spend hours surfing the web, leaving no time to talk to the people who matter most. In other words, meaningful relationships are being trumped by people you barely know.

Prioritize the people in your life—actual and digital—in a four-tier pyramid. The top of the pyramid—Tier A—should be composed of a small number of the most important people in your life, those you want to have open access to you at all times. Residents of Tier B also have good access to you, but you monitor the time you give them more closely. Tiers C and D don’t have open access to you. You might return a voicemail from a C within 24 hours, and Ds will just have to wait until you can get around to them.

After you’ve made these distinctions, stick to them. No, you aren’t being rude or insensitive. You’re clearing your life of counterproductive chatter and safeguarding time and energy for the most important people in your life.

Stop talking and think for a minute. While words can build relationships slowly, they can cause damage with lightning speed. A blurted retort, a thoughtless Tweet, or a hasty remark can—and does—land people in hot water all the time.

People require some space to absorb information, formulate their responses, and deliver them effectively. As the CEO of your tongue, you should issue an executive order to stop talking long enough to think about what it is that you’re going to express. This will help you to clear out a lot of distracting conversational clutter, get in front of ill-advised words, and provide the space you need to self-correct when you’re angry or upset.

Don’t always be yourself. (Careless self-expression is usually an excuse for bad behavior.) Not so long ago, there were more structural impediments to our communication. We couldn’t afford to talk frequently to people outside our local area code, and it was hard to talk to several people at once unless the conversation was face-to-face. If we made a communication gaffe, it wasn’t such a big deal. But now that we can talk to anyone, anywhere, at virtually no cost, the ability to express ourselves instantly can be much more dangerous.

“I was just being myself” sounds harmless, but it’s often an excuse to indulge in destructive behavior. Smart communicators realize that one single action—not allowing your feelings to dictate your words—will impact your quality of life profoundly. By focusing on what you want to accomplish instead of what you want to say, you’ll keep your conversational goal in its rightful place—above your feelings in terms of priority.

Question your questions. Questions are not always neutral. They make some of your conversations better, but as you’ve probably noticed, many questions make a surprisingly large number of your conversations worse. Even simple inquiries can go awry. “Did you call Jim in accounting about this?” can cause trouble if the other person thinks there’s a criticism behind the query.

Some of your relationship problems probably reflect your underdeveloped questioning skills. Faulty questions contribute to many conversational failures and can add anxiety, defensiveness, and ill will to interactions. In general, the more you query simply to indulge your personal cravings to get an answer, to hammer home a point, or to satisfy a narrow personal interest, the more your questions are likely to stifle dialogue. Better to focus on what you can learn from or about another person and ask questions that reflect a broad curiosity about the person or topic you’re discussing.

Don’t try to solve every problem right now. Our quick, cheap, and easy digital devices allow us to have far too many unnecessary conversations, engage in way too much unnecessary collaboration, and get our hands (and thumbs) on too many irrelevant issues. That’s why smart communicators, like smart doctors, have a good triage system—its categories are Now, Delay, and Avoid—to focus on the most pressing issues, while delaying or ignoring less important matters.

Problems in the Now category require an immediate, solution-based conversation. Don’t automatically assign too many issues to this category; this is the fundamental miscalculation your triage system is trying to correct. Delay is your default category. Many issues may disappear completely or resolve themselves without your intervention. Finally, avoid issues that reflect highly emotional, incredibly complicated, and other volatile feelings that reside deep inside another person unless they are impairing the accomplishment of critical work.

Let difficult people win.
Your editor talks too much; your meeting planner is incredibly stubborn; your association president loves to argue; your committee chair is moody. Whether they’re controlling, critical, or cranky, the behaviors that make someone a difficult person tend to spark frequent confrontations—even though we’re unlikely to influence these people. For example, we wrestle with the editor to get a word in edgewise. We struggle to change the meeting planner’s mind. We fire a barrage of points and counterpoints into the president’s arguments. We try to offset our committee chair’s mood swings. It’s time to quit trying.

At the end of a conversation, the difficult person remains the same, but often you are in a weaker position. Only a commitment to let go of your desire to win by imposing your will on the other person can realistically and consistently improve your communication with difficult people. When you find yourself with no choice but to interact with a difficult person, have modest expectations, avoid tangents, and stay focused on your end goal. It’s really all you can do.

Respond with weakness. We all too often use more force than we need to accomplish our objectives. We yell when a measured response would work better, send a blistering e-mail when a more restrained reply would suffice, or issue an ultimatum when a firm but gentle statement of convictions would do. Conflicts that start or escalate with excessive force frequently cause a destructive cycle—attack, retaliation, escalated attack, and escalated retaliation, etc. No matter how justified you may feel, the bottom line is that using excessive force isn’t usually a winning strategy.

It’s not always easy, but try to apply the least amount of interpersonal force and intensity necessary to accomplish your objective. In other words, bring a stick to a knife fight in order to neutralize a harsh conversation. Try to stay serious and focused, and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Keep your words calm, controlled, and stabilizing—don’t add any new emotional material.

Be boring. Modern culture promotes the false notion that communication should be as flashy, stimulating, and entertaining as the sleek devices that facilitate it. We assume that the best conversations are also the most exciting ones—the ones that are intense or high stakes, that bring big news, that are filled with emotion, or that contain something unexpected or novel. But exciting conversations are relatively rare and often don’t go our way. In reality, good, meaningful communication usually looks plain, unremarkable, and boring, and that’s okay.

Think about it: It’s not really excitement and intensity that you want from your conversations; you want bosses, coworkers, members, volunteers, family, and friends you can count on, and they want the same from you. The fact is, boring is dependable. Bland is steady. Over time, what seems unremarkable turns out to be quite remarkable after all, because great relationships are built through thousands of routine interactions.

As we move further into the digital age, let’s embrace new ways to connect while retaining the ability to communicate meaningfully and effectively with each other. Whether you are talking face-to-face with one individual or broadcasting to hundreds via email or social media, you can use higher-order communication skills to make sure that your interactions count.

Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. He can be reached at or