What to do when emailing created communication challenges?

Jess wanted to pick my brain. This was her situation:

I’m a fairly new VA. I have two clients. And the most nerve-wracking thing for me to date has been getting up to speed with them. We’ve had so many misunderstandings although I respond to EVERYTHING I’m sent. We communicate almost exclusively via email, so I SEE what they’re asking me to do, but somehow, they say I’m not understanding. We’ve gotten past all of it, and now, five months later, I feel like we’re a-ok. But getting here was a nightmare.

How can I do it better moving forward? What AM I missing?

Jess, I suspect the issue isn’t in what either of you is writing in your emails, it’s in what’s missing from your writing.

In terms of communication, just about everyone has heard of verbal (what’s said) and non-verbal (body language, eye movements, hand gestures, and facial expressions) cues. But most people are far less aware of the paraverbal cues, which are cues of tone, pitch, inflection and pacing of our voices. Paraverbal is about how we say what we say.

Interestingly, paraverbal information amounts to about 38% of what’s communicated. When it’s missing, it’s a BIG loss.

In the best of all possible worlds, your new relationships would benefit from all three types of cues. But, in our virtual work world, we’re challenged; distance rarely allows us all three.

In the absence of being in person, the “best” communication with new clients would be one where you could get all three: video. Next best would be phone, which would give you verbal and paraverbal. And least effective? Email – which prevents you from getting any non-verbal or paraverbal cues. Funny that what’s least effective is often what’s relied on most, isn’t it? This would also apply to text messaging, and IM, as well as posts in a tool like Basecamp or Asana.

And, Jess, I believe you can learn to hear paraverbal cues through a person’s writing. Certainly, that’s been my experience in having worked virtually for the past 35 years. It’s as though a “sense” has become sharper for me, and I know it’s happened for many other virtual business owners. We “hear” what’s said and not said–even in writing.

By way of a non-biz-related example, writers, good, bad, or indifferent, have voices when they write. I believe paraverbal cues convey through it. That’s what lets us recognize the writing of our favorite authors or poets or bloggers—even if we’re not told whose work we’re reading. We get the tone, the inflection, the pacing—even the word choice, and we know, and understand.

What’s interesting is that it’s not impossible, or even especially difficult to get to a place where the ability to sense the paraverbal being shared by your clients happens easily. And the ability to process paraverbal cues from a person’s writing is easier, still, if you’ve spent time listening to his/her speaking voice (my theory and experience).

But for some people, it’s harder. And for some people, it’s harder with only certain people (which could explain why you may email effortlessly with some, and not with others, like your two new clients).

I bet, Jess, that you’re someone who gets a lot of meaning from paraverbal cues. Maybe your clients are as well. And you just don’t have them when you start working with a new client—especially if your interview process doesn’t require lengthy phone conversations. That also would possibly explain why, months later, things have mellowed out; you’ve learned how to interpret their voices when they write to you, and vice versa.

In the future, notice how the written communication goes when you’re first interacting with a potential client. If it’s at all difficult, but you want to work together, agree to spend at least 70% of your time communicating either by video or phone, with the balance in email/collab tools for the first 30-60 days. And anywhere you write, also use emojis and emoticons. I know that many people hate them, and they’re often used in our culture as a short-hand to keep from typing words, but for our purposes, they ease the difficulties created by the lack of paraverbal cues. Just think of a time where you or someone you know misunderstood that someone was joking. A wink would have helped, right?

I believe you’ll have a far easier time of things in email, Jess, after you’ve become accustomed to listening to your client’s voice, and you recognize tone, sense of humor, timing, etc., in the written word. I also guarantee that trust will build faster–always a good thing, that.

Good luck with this and let me know how it goes with your next client, Jess!