The Complicated World of Digital Relationships
Sitting on an airplane looking at my mobile phone I hear the call from the pissy flight attendant to “turn off ALL electronic devices, the door is closing!” Just before shutting it down I get a text from a client “Got the contract; boy are you in trouble.” It was a three hour flight. I was unable to reply or get clarification. What the heck did that mean?
In a cartoon by Leo Williams, one character says to his friend, “She’s texting me, but I think she’s also sub-texting me.” Leo is 100% correct.
Communication isn’t just the words that are spoken, it’s so much more. Communication scholars tell us there are two areas that are critical when trying to understand what the heck is really going on when people interact:
- Relational Communication
Basic communication theory tells us that every message has content and relational dimensions. Along with the words that are exchanged, there are lots of cues and clues about how the people interacting feel about each other. A lot of the time we are unaware of these relational cues because they are consistent with our expectations of the way the world is. If what is being said confirms our sense of relationship and the world—it goes unnoticed. If something hits us “wrong” it is a different story. We may become acutely aware of relationship signals when they imply something different or threatening.
One of my mentors, Dr. Lawrence Rosenfeld—a professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—says, “To test this for yourself, imagine how you could act while saying, “Can you help me for a minute?” in a way that communicates each of the following relationships:
- Sexual Desire
You don’t need to be an Oscar winning actor to imbue a simple request for help with all kinds of relationship implications. So the first thing you need to be aware of is that there are ALWAYS relationship implications in EVERYTHING you say. That means conversations, meetings, speeches, texts, emails, Facebook posts—you name it. Your awareness of this dynamic is essential if you are going to be an effective leader. It is not that I am suggesting that you begin “acting” one way or another with people to be more effective; the last thing I want you to do is be anything other than genuine. I am merely saying that you must be awake to the fact that others are going to interpret what you are saying with a specific set of relationship assumptions in place.
Evolutionary leaders seem to be able to “up-level” the relationship status of the people they talk with. Instead of a conversation being “employer to employee” the conversation becomes “partners working to change the world”. The same words may be spoken, but people leave with a greater sense of connection and purpose. The Evolutionary leader always seems to be able to orient ALL relationships to bigger, loftier, more important goals and dimensions. It is rarely about personal needs or power-plays.
Evolutionary leaders are also very comfortable talking about communication—in general. The act of communicating about communication is called “meta-communication”. It is the stock and trade of the Evolutionary leader. They are able to abstract themselves from social scenarios and identify the communication give and take that is in play in even complex social situations.
Really good leaders are able to influence these dynamics in a way that scales from one or two people to fifty or a thousand people. I was attending a Banking conference where everyone was talking about the industry in terms of doom and gloom. (Believe me there is nothing more soul sucking than three hundred doleful and depressed bankers.) Then one speaker, with one speech flipped the whole conference. He was basically able to offer ideas in a way where all the participants suddenly saw themselves as cutting-edge thinkers who could easily innovate and design a whole new approach to banking. He basically changed the game by saying, “To hell with the rest of the world, what if we—the people in this room right now—start making slightly different choices right now? …Here is what we could look like in one year…” He leveraged the immediacy and connection of the moment and essentially established a whole new level relational communication for the participants. I feel this way when I watch a lot of the TED Conference speeches.
So, bottom line:
- When you wake up and say “good morning” you are communicating in a way that implies and informs a relationship with the person to who you are speaking. The same is true for ALL communication. Notice it. Deal with it.
- Being intentional and talking about communication is a powerful tool for all leaders. Don’t let communication “happen to you.” Be alert and notice how you can begin to optimize your influence in every situation. And, as much as possible, always elevate the relationship potential to the highest possible level of potential (to do good, compassionate, ethical, and helpful things).
By the way, the text from the client, “Got the contract; boy are you in trouble” was later interpreted as “You’re in trouble because we are going to working very hard for the next three months!” In other words it was a good thing… but it was a long three hour flight.