Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Escaping the e-Communication Trap

Joseph Grenny is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is the author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


Crucial ConversationsQDear Crucial Skills,

My youngest daughter lives several states away and it is difficult at best to have a conversation with her. Nearly all our communication comes via text messaging and e-mail. If this happened on occasion, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it seems that 99.9 percent of our conversations are through texting. As a result, we have had misunderstandings from time to time. My daughter hates talking on the phone so we’re stuck in this e-communication trap. Any suggestions on how to effectively broach this “new” technology and reduce the chances of misunderstandings?


A  Dear e-Mom,

It’s kind of ironic that I’m answering your question about the perils of electronic communication using electronic communication. It’s especially so because I’m going to make a bunch of assumptions about what’s really going on in order to offer you a buffet of ideas. But let’s agree that this is the kind of buffet where you take what you want and leave the rest—so I can run wild with ideas without making hurtful judgments. In fact, my guesses are likely to reveal more about myself than you! So relax and enjoy.

1.  Hold the right conversation. The first crucial conversation you need to hold is with yourself. You may want to consider whether her preference for texting is simply generational or is evidence of some other concern. For example, is she using texting to maintain some boundaries with you? If she felt you were not allowing her enough distance and independence, she might use texting as a convenient way to maintain emotional space. Or is there some other issue that would cause her to “act out” her feelings using texting rather than talking them out in a more direct way?

This introspection is important because if there is something else in the relationship that you need to deal with it would be important to identify the issue rather than assume she is simply a poor judge of good communication vehicles. If there is another issue, I’d suggest you take that up with her first.

2.  Work on me first. If you’re confident the relationship is up to date and the issue is truly that she’s substituting convenience for effectiveness, then my best advice is that you lead by example. She’s your youngest, right? Well, it may be unwise to expect her to appreciate the niceties of mature communication for years to come. So I’d suggest when you see the issue requires more bandwidth than texting, you pick up the phone and make it happen. I’d also suggest you do this sparingly for reason #1 above. I’m reading into this—but with most kids the development of independence is an important psychological process that can take years. Talking with you on the phone may remind her of the power differential between the two of you that she has experienced her whole life. If that’s part of the dynamic here, it’s best to ask her to experience that as seldom as necessary.

3.  Master your story. This last suggestion is highly autobiographical. When I make brilliant and very wise suggestions to my kids and they ignore them, I notice that I feel much more bothered than I should if my only motive were their betterment. In fact, I often feel a bit peeved. When I break down this emotion, I have to admit that the reason for my excess irritation is not their disregard of my supernal gift on insight, but the story I’m telling myself about their choice. I tell myself that their decision is evidence of disrespect. Or worse, intentional rebellion. In doing so, I am giving them advice with big strings attached. I’m not saying, “Here’s a useful idea.” Rather, I’m saying, “Do you like me?” or “Do you respect me?” Because somewhere in my subconscious, I believe that if they truly respected me, then they’d always take my advice.

I’ve found that I cannot be a good influence on my kids unless I master this story. Especially with adult children, I must be willing to respect their independence and offer ideas with no such emotional strings attached. When I cleanse myself of this hidden agenda, I find they respond much differently to my advice. And I respond much differently to their response.

Best wishes in your virtual—and actual—relationships!

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

12 thoughts on “Escaping the e-Communication Trap”

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  2. Kathleen Greer

    This is a wonderful article! All three points provide a very useful reality check for me.The Master Your Story sugestion is brilliant. Were you listening in on the phone call that I just had with my son?? Thank you Joseph.

  3. JB

    I speak first hand of the knowledge of the miscommunications that arise from electronic messages,especially text and chat room messages. Having a long distance relationship my boy friend and I use texting and yahoo messenger to communicate regularly. And we were having arguments and some hurt feelings over comments and messages until I reminded my boy friend to read the messages I sent using what he thinks is my tone of voice and inflection. A sentence on a screen lacks the facial feature, the voice tone and inflection, and the body language, to be read by someone the same way it was intended to be read by the sender. Ironic sarcasm in person is much easier to read and interpret as funny then sarcastic words on a screen which just appear rude. A really good rule is to be more formal when writing and save the cute sarcasm and witty humor for real time conversations. The way your interpret something when you type it (the way you hear it in your head)is frequently not read with the same meaning and may seen rude, abbrassive or even hurtful with out intending to be. But finally, if there is a misunderstanding, immediately use the phone and speak in person to clear it up.

  4. Marianne Smith

    I read an article this week which said that texting is the preferred mode of communciation for young. With text you can answer at your your convenience. They see the telephone as intrusive. Another approach is to text and ask when would be a good time for a call.

  5. Maureen P. Flanagan-Chase

    Dear e-Mom & Crucial Skills,
    I believe that we are the laboratory animals of this virtual transition. We are living on the seam of actual and virtual communication. Some of my bills arrive by mail others solely by e-mail. Job searches and applications are almost entirely completed on-line. I am finding it difficult to navigate in this virtual change. However, like you, my children prefer to communicate via text messaging. I will, usually respond in text and promptly call them. I keep the conversation brief and to the point. Even verbal communication with kids can be confusing. So, I try to achieve as much clarity in our brief conversations as possible and I always tell them that I love them before we hang up. Good luck to you and to each of us during this transition. It is up to us to preserve the human touch.

  6. Karen Cahilly

    E-communication is the method of choice for communicating with teens and twenty-somethings. This is their modality for all contacts and should not be construed as rejecting her parents. They don’t like talking on the phone and often resent the perceived intrusion of a phone call on their time. Perhaps a compromise is in order; E-mail and text messaging to her hearts content with a monthly phone call with the parents? She stays in touch and mom and dad get the phone conversation they relish.

  7. Ange Finn

    Joe, great advice. I would add a couple of things to also consider about phone time, as the mother of a young adult and the daughter of chatty elderly relatives.

    If your daughter hates talking on the phone, another thing for us moms to do is check our own conversational style. Do we monopolize the conversation? Are we listening enough? Are we talking too much about things that aren’t interesting to our young adult kids?

    Also, where I find there are problems is the sign-off. I have gritted my teeth for years when I say “I have to go, talk to you soon”, and the relative on the other end starts into an entirely new line of conversation. Now–horrors!–I find myself doing the same thing to my daughter! So, when it’s time to sign off, I ask myself, am I honoring her time limits and saying goodbye or am I going on and on and forcing her to be more abrupt about ending the conversation? Working on me does help a lot!

  8. Greg

    I think the answer totally missed the point of the Mom’s question. I think the answer she is looking for is direction on the proper use of e-mail and how not to miscommunicate by clearly writing a message that cannot be taken out of content and to think twice about what you wrote before you hit the “send” button…

  9. Sylvia Willis

    A great unsightful article. And an anecdotal thought to add…I have seen teens and young twenties sitting side by side texting each other. My first reaction was a chuckle and the thought “How weird is that?!” but I later realized that they were a) not being overheard (there are many cell phone calls I would rather not be hearing aloud) and b) maybe able to say (reveal) more in text form than if they were speaking aloud. Similar to the parental tactic of having “serious” conversations seated side by side in a moving car rather than at a table face to face.
    Many on cell phones talk about very personal matters as if they are in a private space somewhere, and very loudly in some cases. Some of this seems disrespectful of those around them as if they are totally unimportant — like Victorian upper class treatubg servants as if invisible, as if they are nothing. [And is that perhaps revealing of some residual tender spot of mine? 🙂 ]

    I enjoy all your articles very much.

  10. Kay

    Great article! May I suggest one more tool in our arsenals for communicating with anybody who is reluctant to talk on the phone: good old-fashioned snail mail. It’s surprising how excited someone can get about receiving a handwritten envelope with a stamp on it. Some of my most treasured keepsakes are in the form of letters from loved ones for whom it was too expensive to make a phone call (remember when long-distance phone calls cost serious money?). It’s just as fun to send someone a card with a few sticks of gum or other trinkets tucked inside! And it can really open up those lines of communication.

  11. Naomi

    That story that I’m telling myself seems to bite me over and over – thanks for pointing that part out in your response, I NEEDED to hear it once again. My youngest daughter goes off to college this Friday and I’m stressed over emotions gone wild in these final days so I’m going to write on a 3×5 card and refer to it regularly “what story am I telling MYSELF about this?” That should get me through this and I’m with the idea of snail mail, EVERY time I write a “real” letter I get a follow-up PHONE CALL thanking me for taking the time to write!

  12. Becky

    Thank you, Joseph. This is the best advice you can give in this situation. I am a mother of 2 adult girls (and I use the word “adult” only in the legal sense) (and just couldn’t bring myself to use the word “women”). At any rate, I have only just recently come to realize the power of offering my advice when the door is wide open, then immediately backing away without emotion. You’re right – they respond positively if they sense the advice is just that and not criticism. As for the texting problem – I agree that every once in awhile the mother should make a real phone call. My excuse is “it’s too hard to text” (without the qwerky keyboard). I just have a plain old fashioned cell phone.

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