7 July 2011

Difficult Conversations

I'm reading a book about "difficult conversations", those conversations we don't want to have, because they make us feel uneasy. Ironically, I have just had a conversation that was difficult for a different reason: the medium was wrong. Take a guess. Yes, I was using e-mail.

The conversation should have been completely normal and was actually not a "difficult one" at all. I'll tell you a bit about it: I'm trying to organise a meeting with a new property officer and the residents of my building. The problem is that all the information about when the property officer might be available, his current plans for visiting the building and meeting residents, has all been obtained by e-mail.

Today I found myself thinking that, after a considerable exchange of e-mails, we were going to find ourselves having a conversation about the state of the building, in the staircase. Ten people or so trying to communicate and agree on how to move forwards while standing uncomfortably on different steps.

I tried to call this property manager. Using a landline. Yes, I know, very revolutionary (or shall I say old-fashioned?). I didn't think this was an urgent matter and therefore did not want to call him on his mobile phone. (I know, also quite revolutionary!)

So at the end of what was a little bit of a lengthy e-mail trying to explain that if he didn't absolutely need to meet everyone at the property, we should find an alternative venue, I mentioned that I had tried to get in touch with him by phone but hadn't been able to reach him. I really wasn't begrudging the fact that he wasn't at his desk. I just wanted to explain that I would have preferred to talk to him on the phone and I wanted to show that I wasn't one of those people who has ditched all forms of communication that are not electronic.

You can guess what happened next: he explained that the reason why he wasn't at his desk was that he'd been out for work all day. The tone wasn't confrontational, but I felt this was a justification. He obviously thought I thought he should have been at his desk.

Ooops, I thought, very nearly had a stupid confrontation there, due to mis-communication. I hope I diffused this by saying that I thought he would have been out and about and then made a light comment, hoping he hadn't been caught in the rain.

This is why I hate e-mail. Although maybe what I mean is that I hate the way that so many of us have come to rely on e-mail to have not just "difficult conversations" but also, any kind of conversation. I could have waited untill tomorrow to talk to this guy. Or I could have left him a voicemail and waited for him to ring back. But no, I wanted to grab this little bit of electronic communication to tell him what I wanted to say right here, right now.

Ironic that, while reading a book on how to communicate in difficult situations, I almost created an unnecessary one for myself. And they say that technology is meant to make our lives easier. Oh well. I'll have to retrain myself to use it.

(To read about emotions and difficult conversations, try the Unusual Connections blog.)

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