Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
That space which Mr. Frankl points to between stimulus and response offers us so much possibility. It is a place where we can take action that makes our intentions real.
Communication is a place that really benefits from finding that space. Our interactions matter, otherwise, we would have learned just not to engage with each other. Our relationships are affected by how we filter what goes on inside our heads and translate it into something we express externally in the world. Communication is a critical pathway to building and being in a relationship because what we choose to express – and how we express it – with our spoken or written words affects others (as well as ourselves).
At some point many years ago, I started to notice the nature of the emails that I was receiving, both personally and professionally. What struck me was how frequently the message could have been generated by a machine and how they left me feeling empty. The sender often made a short statement which sounded a lot like a demand with no background, context, or acknowledgment.
I know. I know. We’re all busy. We don’t always have time to be kind or to explain. I get it. And, I expect that some portion of communication will be terse. Sometimes my interpretation of the message is blemished by my mood, or I’m overreacting or over-interpreting the intention.
That said, what proportion of our messages hold these terse, cold qualities? Is that how we want to be showing up? Is it really getting us what we want? What might our relationships be like if we showed a little more caring, especially where we have shared outcomes we want to achieve? Even though we are communicating via a computer, we are two people interacting with each other; therefore, we are in relationships with each other.
What’s the essence of the emails you receive? What are the qualities of the emails you send? Maybe you want to identify a handful of emails you’ve sent to different people over the past week and to read them, considering the reader’s perspective. Is there anything that conveys something personal, or does it sound like a computer could have generated it? Does it reflect a considered response or something that seems fired off without much thought? How do you think the receiver felt when reading the email?
Noticing the machine-like quality of others’ emails, I began to see how my messages were that way, too. What I thought was ‘professional’ was empty, impersonal, and often not particularly helpful. I thought there might be an untapped power in my email exchanges so I started experimenting with what it would be like to ‘be human’ through my electronic communication. Given that I worked remotely from my home office, collaborating electronically with people all over the world, this had the potential to affect my work in a hugely positive way.
I discovered that it is possible for people to feel your energy – yes, through words over media – when you are present and intentional about your communication with them. I learned that it is possible to spread joy and positivity through electronic communications. I found that taking a few extra seconds to be present while crafting messages made a difference. After years of testing, now I receive comments like this from my friends and colleagues: “You need to know in case I don’t tell you enough that I want to be like you. Your ability to acknowledge, to reflect, and to cheer on is second to none. Every time I read one of your messages, I always take such a deep breath. I can literally feel the stress and anxiety drip away. You remind me that I am ok and I can tackle anything.”
Here are some of the approaches I found effective.
- Envision the person you are about to engage with. Who are you sending the email to? Do you have a photo of them you could look at (e.g., a corporate directory)? If not, just take a moment to imagine them sitting across from you before you start typing. This simple task helps move from entirely self-focused to including the other person, which can positively influence communication, especially if we are upset or tense or uncertain.
- Begin your message with the person’s name. There is something very personal about one’s name. Just this simple step is so incredibly powerful because people appreciate being seen. Of course, many a computer is programmed to do this, so it alone is not a signature of human communication. ‘Saying it’ is not just for the recipient, it is also for you, the sender. It reminds you that you are ‘talking to’ a particular individual.
- Read the email aloud after you draft it. Notice how particular words make you feel. Notice the tone that comes across. Is it too formal, too casual? Do you sound angry or unaffected? It’s amazing what changing a single word can do to shift the experience for the reader (e.g., eliminating the word ‘but’, removing any ‘should’s and ‘must’s, finding alternatives to angry or authoritarian words like ‘permit’ or ‘tolerate’). Notice how particular words make you feel
- Acknowledge something about the other person’s contribution or value. I often do this before I close and focus on something relevant to the work we’re doing together or about our friendship that is dear to me. For example, it might be a simple statement such as ‘I appreciate how you challenge us to put our best foot forward’ or ‘I love that you ensure we see all perspectives.’. This is another way of validating that we ‘see’ the other person.
- Sign your name at the end of the message. This reminds you that it is YOU who is communicating. This is a small way of saying, me, another human being, is sending this message to you.
A more general strategy that works with all kinds of communication is Me-You-Us. It goes like this:
ME: Start by looking inside yourself. Notice the voice inside that wants to respond, and what you want to say and why.
YOU: Look ‘across the table’ – that is, take a moment to see the other person. Recognize that you are relating to another person who has wants and needs, too. Put yourself in the position of the other person and consider what they need and the impact of your response on them.
US: Focus on outcomes – yours, theirs, and any shared and divergent goals or intentions you might have. Consider ways your response can create desired outcomes (e.g., connection, relationship, positive experience).
When we write an email we are interacting with another person. The words and tone we use build or break down personal connection. We always have an impact – it may be negligible or substantive, negative or positive – and we can be intentional about what it is we create.
When we are aware of how we are feeling as we craft our communication, when we put ourselves in the shoes of the recipient, when we write in a way that aligns with what we would like to be creating (e.g., strong relationships, positive outcomes), we increase the odds that our emails are something others are happy to receive.
Words are like magnets that polarize people or bring them together. If we pause before we respond – that is, if we take advantage of that space between whatever caused us to want to write a message and actually sending the message – we own our ability to create impact-full communication. When we are fully present when engaging with others, we can powerfully shift what’s possible.