Soft skills: why digital technology is killing communication

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Today’s ‘always on’ culture of instant communication is eroding our understanding of soft skills.

I'm often approached to undertake soft skills training for individuals and groups on behalf of companies. Their strategies may be comprehensive and their systems well honed, but they often have an imprecise, but clearly felt, sense of softer interpersonal skills lacking in the organisation.

Nanosecond communication

We live in the age of paradoxical communication.

Communication has never been more abundant. Written correspondence that could take weeks to exchange a generation ago takes place in nanoseconds in some cases and in multiple formats.

This materially affects the speed and content of that communication, as well as the emotional reactions of readers being in real time, rather than reflected upon.

A good deal of the conflict generated between people, both intra-and inter-organisational, comes from this rapid process of communication. Fast communication can produce clarity, but it often offers little opportunity to reflect and consider one's position.

Communication can be then ill-measured, thoughtless, and either given insufficient deep thought or responded to in a manner that ‘gets it out of the way’, and indeed out of one's inbox, so one can get on with other activities.

This is inevitably a recipe for misunderstanding.

Doing, not thinking and feeling

In a millennial world, where the term ‘friend’ has become a normalisation for a leading communication platform, without necessarily any of the interpersonal elements that once constituted friendship, our relational norms are changing.

The reduced language of texts, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have resulted in a communicative shorthand that create edited highlights only, and little content.

The customer experience is far better when the team member places real value in genuine conversation and interest in the client

So much of this communication is about what people are doing rather than what they are thinking or feeling, and the occasional photographs and insights into one's personal life are not communicated intimately but in a projective way.

This means the imagery appears, but it is for the viewer to project their own emotional repertoire over it to interpret it, as the brevity of the communication, even when in pictorial form, communicates little of what is actually going on in the mind of those posting.

Understanding our uniqueness

It's partially about being a post-modern world, where there are no conventional rules and norms that govern our interpersonal behaviour.

For people unaware of another age, one of different emotional values and more direct forms of communication, this style becomes the norm.

Communication and values walk hand in hand, and in a modern world we very rarely examine either.

Instead of understanding the uniqueness of each individual, our post-modern approaches reduce us to a group unit of one. As such, we become ‘respected’ in our lifestyle choices, but not necessarily understood, appreciated or even considered important.

As these divisions come between us, individual egos become absolutely paramount and, from the words of modern politicians through to simple Facebook posts, self-interest becomes the norm.

Ineffective policy

For companies, this poses a real challenge. Firms rely upon customers, and if their individuality is not respected, they tend to take their business elsewhere.

This has resulted in a number of ineffective organisational policies focused on talking to consumers.

Customer service training shapes how staff respond and behave, rather than encouraging them to produce any human interpersonal skills and actually ‘reading’ the customer.

This materially affects the human interactions between company and client, reducing the relationship to efficient transactionalism whilst only paying lip service to the customers as individuals.

This is particularly negative when you have staff who, instead of being allowed to think for themselves, now have scripted responses offering rhetoric rather than real exchanges with individuals.

The customer experience is far better when the team member places real value in genuine conversation and interest in the client, tailoring their speech, tone and speed to match the priorities of the person they’re speaking to.

Modern values

Communication and values walk hand in hand, and in a modern world we very rarely examine either.

Dumbed down language fits the format of new technologies. Closing the sale transcends good customer service and importance commercially.

Good communication, like good cup of tea, requires the time and effort it takes to brew properly.

The post-modern world that simply ‘respects’ people does not necessarily appreciate them without a clear understanding of organisational values and a certain amount of adapted moral philosophy.

It's very easy as a consultant to go into any company and say, "ah yes, you have a communication problem!" You then talk a little bit about the ‘what’ of the communication issue, and suddenly nobody has a problem settling your invoice.

Unfortunately, many organisations find it hard to accept that communication needs to be worked on from the top down, and quantitative targets must often take second place to best serve the customer.

As a consultant, you cannot wave a magic wand over this or generate a quick fix if these basic facts aren’t accepted. This can often result in the consultant’s services suddenly not being required.

This is a very cynical, but nonetheless real experience that companies have had with consultants.

Time to brew

Communication without values exploration and sensitivity training to help people comprehend the unique nature of humanity, rather than a simple observance of ‘difference’, is vital.

It is not only good for business, it's beneficial for a whole range of younger workers, who see employment as a means to an end rather than a way to genuinely learn and self-actualise.

It is a bit like trying to make a brew with hot water, but no teabag or milk to go with it.

Good communication, like good cup of tea, requires the time and effort it takes to brew properly, which is certainly more than nanoseconds!

Want to know more about soft skills training? Read 'Soft skills: how to teach the missing basics to today's young talent.'

About David Cliff

Dr David Cliff Headshot

Dr David Cliff was named Lead Ambassador for Mentoring and Lead Ambassador for Business Crime by the Institute of Directors North East, and was awarded Mentor of the Year at the 2017 Entrepreneur's Forum Awards. Dr Cliff is an expert coach and mentor with over 35 years of management and personal development experience.

He founded Gedanken, a leading edge executive and business-coaching organisation, providing businesses and individuals with the thought processes and strategies for personal and professional advancement.

Gedanken works with dozens of companies and individuals across the North East, and he and his colleagues have personally supported thousands of people. The coaching Gedanken provides helps business leaders and their team members to find a clearer direction and purpose, and to improve performance; which often results in a qualitatively better experience of life.

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17th Oct 2018 05:07

I have actually read that there is a lot of lingo and semantics that govern how people can accurately convey their feelings and intentions over text now that people don't use their voice and face-to-face skills. That's not to say that we don't need to be more focused on doing things in person though. At my storage facility we handle business face to face on a daily basis and it would be hard to handle everything digitally to be honest!

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