We all communicate in a variety of ways every day. The fact is human beings are born to communicate. And the number of ways we can communicate has never been greater than today. In fact, some of our most prevalent communication mediums today didn’t exist twenty years ago. Unfortunately (though probably predictably), an abundance of tools hasn’t necessarily made us better communicators. My case in point today? Social media. Let’s explore what we can learn about effective (or not) communication from social media.
Let’s start at the beginning. Effective communication is more than sending messages to an audience. Effective communication is message sent, message, received, message understood. While I have seen conversations in a comment thread allow people to create true mutual understanding, those instances are rare.
The challenges of creating “message sent, and message understood” aren’t solely those of the various social media channels. Chances are you have been in an email thread that went sideways and created frustration and conflict. Did the next email message correct it? Chances are you unraveled the communication and relieved the frustration with a phone call – something that isn’t likely happening after a social media miscommunication.
Helpful or Harmful?
Personally, I can cite many positives for some social media channels – it has brought distant members of my family closer together and has created or renewed bonds with classmates and people from my hometown. These channels can facilitate people with common interests to bond and learn from each other. In these ways, it is hard to argue the positive value of these channels and their ability to create a platform for communication.
This means that while social media isn’t always the cause of communication problems, these same channels are causing communication challenges and for many creating bad communication habits that are spreading beyond these online platforms.
The problems with communication on social media platforms don’t solely belong to these platforms, but some of the biggest communication mistakes are easily repeated there. Some of the biggest examples are:
- Forgetting about the audience. It is easy to make a statement on a social channel, and not thinking about the audience – because the audience could be large and quite vague. While plenty of people makes statements in real face to face communications, it is harder to ignore the audience completely when you can see them in front of you. Effective communication always takes the audience into account.
- Focusing completely on sending your message. Sending messages on social platforms is easy – type it out, and hit send. But sending messages is just the first part of effective communication. Again, we all can be guilty of this in other communication settings (e.g. “I sent them the email…”), but the immediate and personal repercussions in a social channel are less and less personal typically, so the focus on sending can be heightened.
- Confusing venting with successful communication. We all have a need to vent sometimes – communicating through a challenge or frustration can be helpful for us. But the personal need for venting seldom has a positive connection to effective communication. Go for a walk and talk it out. Vent to a willing friend. I don’t know about you but I have seen many things posted on social channels that lead me to wonder why they were posted. Maybe the sender felt better – but there was no chance of effective communication with anyone else as a result.
When you look at these challenges you see one thing in common – an internal focus. Each of these points center on the sender and their need to say something, but they don’t necessarily relate to and definitely don’t promote effective communication. Again, all of these things happen in media other than the “social” ones, but social media makes all of these mistakes more prevalent and can support bad habits in other communication situations.
There is more that could be said about the challenges of social media communication, like the creation of communication with anonymity, which rarely improves communication outcomes. When people take their anonymous communication habits into more personal or professional realms, communication results will be poor, and trust and relationships can be damaged as well.
But rather than simply beating up social media for poor communication (this wouldn’t be the first post to do that), let’s take some positives from these lessons.
Taking Positive Lessons
You have made all of the mistakes listed above, and so have I – and not only on social media but in many communications situations. Rather than shaking our head at how others are mangling communication, let’s use that experience to improve ours. Here are three quick examples:
- Start with the audience. Before you communicate, think about who your audience is. Think about what they know, care about and value. When you begin your communication remembering that, you have a far better chance of communication success.
- Focus on “message received.” It is easy to send messages. But what do you want people to hear and understand? Don’t just give directions, help people arrive successfully. Don’t just share your perspective, help people see it and understand it.
- Share what is useful and valuable. Just because you can share, doesn’t mean you need to. When you see communication as less about you and more about the message, you will make far better communication decisions.
There are more lessons than these three. If you see others as you read and reflect, please apply them. But you can start with these three – when you apply these three ideas you will become a more effective communicator, regardless of your communication medium or platform.
One of the many ways you can become a more effective communicator is through better understanding your communication style and the strengths and weaknesses of that style. When you couple that knowledge with an understanding of how others communicate, you can predictably create more effective communication. One tool for doing that is a DISC Assessment. You can get a taste of those insights with our free assessment here. From there, you can upgrade to a full assessment and see a suite of tools to help you and your team be more effective communicators.