The means we choose to communicate can make all the difference in our effectiveness and efficiency. But, as with so many communication and consensus-building skills, our instinctive choices often lead us astray.

Here’s a list of communication choices, from lowest level to highest level:

  1. Silence
  2. Tweet
  3. Text message
  4. Facebook message
  5. e-mail
  6. Conventional letter or note
  7. Phone
  8. Face-to-face

If a prospective subject is difficult or touchy—say you have a complaint, you need to say “no” to someone else’s request, or you have bad news to deliver, your instinct may be to communicate in writing. You sense that feelings may be hurt or tempers may flare. So you shy away from the face-to-face conversation where you might see an angry face and hear a raised voice or a slamming door.

Your guts tell you that written communication (levels 2 through 6) will keep things calm or insulate you from the unpleasantness. You feel like things are less likely to blow up if you put them in writing. Or you may think that putting things in black and white eliminates the possibility of misunderstanding.

Writing does work best for communicating strictly factual information such as dates, times, and statistics. But if the discussion potentially involves emotional content or might be subject to different interpretations, writing actually works against you.

Without the tools of facial expression, body language and tone of voice, you can’t tell if the other person is hurt or angry, confused or puzzled. You don’t get the cue to address her hurt or anger right away before it builds or to correct a misunderstanding before she acts on it. Nor can you show her your true feelings and intentions by your own tone, body language and face. Plus, you deprive her of the opportunity to detect and address your negative feelings or misunderstandings.

Particularly common is the sense that a reader will know when you were joking or writing tongue in cheek. But people can’t always tell when you are and are not serious, and you can’t rely on a little smiley emoticon to solve that problem.

Even if your reader does not become hurt or angry, she may simply misunderstand the written word. Just after writing the last sentence, I went to my own Facebook timeline and looked for something I had written that could be taken in different ways. I didn’t have to look far. The very last status I posted the night before read: “The evil day has arrived. Thus far, I had managed to avoid Timeline by not accepting FB apps. Now they’ve put me on it. Time to read that article I set aside on how to protect your privacy with Timeline.”

Rereading that statement now, I can imagine a reader thinking:

  • It’s an “evil day” because she fears Timeline will invade her privacy.
  • It’s an evil day because she’s an old fogy who doesn’t like change.
  • It’s an evil day because she has to read the article she’s been putting off.

I bet some of you reading the quote above interpreted what I wrote in yet another way that hasn’t occurred to me. And my actual meaning—an evil day because I didn’t want to take the time to learn about Timeline—did not occur to some readers.

Fortunately, my statement about Timeline was not important. But when something is important, and especially if it is actually or potentially emotionally charged, don’t deprive yourself, or the other person, of the tools of face, body and voice. Communicate in person if at all possible. Otherwise, at least talk by phone.

Use written communications for innocuous facts, to confirm understandings you think you reached when speaking in person, or when absolutely unavoidable. And when written communication is unavoidable, the higher up the scale you go, the better your chances of success. An old-fashioned letter forces you to pause while it prints, or slow down while you write it out by hand. These slow downs increase the chance that you will catch ambiguous or potentially offensive statements before you send the letter.

Tweets and text messages are the worst. With Twitter, you have a character limit, and with texts, you tend to limit yourself. So you can’t always explain things clearly. And we tend to tweet and text on the go when our attention is divided, and often, so is that of the recipient.

It’s always good to reread any written communication, whether print or electronic, before you send it. If there’s any chance of emotional reactions or different interpretations, check back with the recipient and try to confirm that she got your meaning and feels OK with it.

This month, try shifting to in-person and phone communications for important matters. Prepare for these conversations using the methods described in my older blog posts and in Bridges to Consensus. You’ll find the investment in time pays off handsomely in efficiency and effectiveness.