- Digital communication fails to convey nonverbal cues in the communication process.
- Traditional forms of communication, like phone calls, can offer a faster path to effective communication.
- Medical professionals use phone call reminders as an effective way to motivate their patients to action.
Like everyone else, therapists live in a digital world. As our job is to listen and communicate, it is important that we recognize the gaps in understanding that can sometimes arise over email.
Digital communication—email, text, and social media—is fast and easy. We can send a message in an instant, and recipients answer whenever it’s convenient. However, digital communication has its limitations. It never gives us a break, arriving at all times of day and night. Nuance and emotional overtones get lost in translation. Email gets ignored easily, often to dangerous effects—something the medical establishment has long known. And, perhaps worst of all, it can stifle spontaneous, in-the-moment collaboration.
I hear many stories about misunderstandings that arise from digital communications; the most common is the simple delay in response, which can read as signaling indifference, laziness, or even hostility. But then, when we choose to respond, we find ourselves riddled with challenges: How do I let someone know that my email request comes with my respect for them or their busy schedule? How do I show appreciation for the fact that they may have a different take on a suggestion or request I’m making? Does this sound too formal? Too casual? Too long? Too short?
That’s why I advocate for real-time communication—voice, video, or in-person—whenever possible. So my message is: Just pick up the phone!
The Value of Real-Time Communication
Here’s a recent example from my own life that drove home this point:
I recently got an email inviting me to lecture for a Chinese conference on psychoanalysis and philosophy. As much as I’m invested in working with Chinese colleagues, this invitation seemed a bad fit; philosophy is not my strong suit, and I immediately doubted if I could offer something useful. (Candidly, I also worried about coming across as sounding unscholarly, or even fraudulent, to such a learned audience.) After a few hours of trying (and failing) to respond by email, I decided to arrange a Zoom call with the graduate student who had invited me on behalf of his professor.
Even though his English wasn’t perfect and I speak no Chinese, our conversation made it clear that my initial impression was way off. He explained that the organizers wanted clinical contributions and that many of them were clinical therapists themselves. With that added information, and with the warmth of his encouraging voice, I accepted the offer gladly.
To be sure, there were still moments in the call of misunderstanding—but I could easily respond to his confusion with a change in tone, an explanatory statement, or a clarifying question. It would have taken a dozen emails to accomplish what we did in fewer than 30 minutes of real-time communication.
Something else occurred to me during our Zoom meeting: His tone and countenance prompted me to ask whether the conference presenters could be invited to contribute to a journal, Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in China, that I edit. That seemed a good idea to him as well, and he promised to discuss it with his professor and get back to me, which he promptly did. Accepting the invitation—to say nothing of my suggestion to collaborate further—would simply not have happened over email alone.
Emboldened by this encounter, I picked up the phone (again) and called a colleague also immersed in promoting psychotherapy in China about a project I’d had simmering on a back-burner for a while. To my pleasant surprise, she said yes! Then I had to involve a third key person on my end and find a price for this project that would be agreeable to us all. (To make matters more complicated, she also lives overseas in another country.) I picked up the phone again. To my good luck, she answered, and I proposed my project to her. To my delight, she was enthusiastic about the proposal, and further negotiations began.
Simply by talking to people in real-time, I’d said yes to an invitation to a conference that would have ended up in my junk folder, solved a problem that had been brewing inside me, and collaborated with colleagues across the world. Not bad for a Tuesday morning! Ultimately, I was only able to do this because I chose to forego the ease of email and connect with my colleagues in real-time.
The Importance of Nonverbal Cues
It all comes down to the value of nonverbal communication. Vocal tone, body language, facial expression, and general emotional state tell us so much about a person’s mental state. The value of nonverbal communication, estimated to be upwards of 90 percent of all communication cues we receive, cannot be overstated. And it has no analog in digital communication.
Email still has its place: setting up appointments, editing papers, sharing spreadsheets, making sure there’s a paper trail when it matters. But when it’s a matter of truly understanding each other—breaking down a language barrier, reaching a consensus, or collaborating on a new endeavor—email only slows us down.
So, the next time you find yourself with a tricky issue, try saying: “Let’s talk.” It’s amazing how much can happen when you just pick up the phone.
LinkedIn image: Rido/Shutterstock. Facebook image: AJR_photo/Shutterstock
Kiran, T., Davie, S., Moineddin, R., & Lofters, A. (2018, November 1). Mailed letter versus phone call to increase uptake of cancer screening: A Pragmatic, randomized trial. American Board of Family Medicine. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://www.jabfm.org/content/31/6/857.short.
Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.