Is the Pen Mightier than the Phone?

Is the Pen Mightier than the Phone?

Communication styles – employee engagement – employee welfare

Pre-pandemic*, there was too much choice in paint. Way too much. If I was trying to make a decorating decision I would pad up and down the paint aisles in DIY shops, getting less and less sure, and more and more grumpy. And then in decorating desperation I would eventually plump for either white, magnolia or white with a hint of something or other. There was just too much choice and we humans don’t like too much choice.

Just like paint, we have many communication options open to us. We can use text, voice, and audio-visual cues. Some people I know are on email, text, WhatsApp, social media, and video calls – all at the same time. It’s certainly exhausting, but is it effective? What’s the best way to get our message across? Mired in tier 4 as I am at the moment, face to face is not an option. Should I write, IM, phone or have a video call?

In business I work on the instinct developed by years of HR problem solving. Employers often don’t know what I need to know before I can advise. Writing is really helpful to confirm advice, but when you’re trying to find out information, it’s clunky, slow, and imprecise. Phone calls are great for asking the questions and getting to the detail. I also love it for having a bit of a chat with clients who have been marooned in this terrible year, trying to keep their businesses going, while doing the right thing for their staff.

Communication is important for maintaining the familial and social relationships essential for our health and happiness. In deciding how best to communicate bear in mind that the human voice is key. Research suggests that many of us don’t recognise the value of phoning someone and often prefer writing to them, either by email, text, or instant message.

You might think that the phone call has been superseded by video call, especially now that the pandemic has made videoconferencing part of daily life. But interestingly adding video to a phone call may not increase our sense of connection to another person.

Researchers (Epsley, N and Kumar, A) asked people to engage with someone they didn’t know by asking a number of thought-provoking questions (for example, “Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?”),either by texting in real time during a live chat, talking using only audio, or talking over video chat.

Before starting the experiments, the subjects set out what they anticipated they would feel during the discussion that they were about to have. Afterwards they described how they actually felt.

Before starting the discussion, the “guinea pigs” did not expect that they way they communicated with another person would have an effect on how engaged or disengaged they would feel, but they reported feeling more connected after talking (rather than typing).

The researchers concluded a sense of connection does not seem to come from being able see another person but rather from hearing that person’s voice. This is consistent with other research which suggests that the voice is the real signal that creates understanding and connection.

So, it seems that the phone is mightier than the pen!

Well, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is still a place for written communication. If you’re sending a simple message, a quick update, or an attachment, then emails and texts are ideal. It’s just that we should use both spoken and written methods in the right way at the right times.

We have all been looking forward to Christmas more than usual and many of use are bitterly disappointed that we can’t meet up with friends and family courtesy of the most recent viral mutation. The virus has gone viral (well it would, wouldn’t it) and if we want to get rid of it, we have to abide by the social distancing rules and deny the virus its host. More self-discipline and denial – but essential.

But we can get on the phone. (Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell, prince among inventors!) You—and those you love and miss talking to face-to-face - are likely to feel better as a result.

Here endeth the last blog of 2020. I wish you and yours a happy, safe, and healthy Christmas and New Year. We all know the start of 2021 won’t be much different, but let’s hope by the spring when the vaccine has done its work, we can start to resume more normal lives.

* It's all white or magnolia now. Colour seems to have faded from the paint shelves, so the paint colour choice dilemma is - temporarily at least - not an issue.


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.