For personal communicating, face-to-face beats texting hands-down

Emotions are hard to get across in text messages and can lead to misunderstandings, especially when resolving conflicts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 7:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2016, 7:30pm

Many people who find it difficult to communicate emotions, prefer to use text messages or other internet-mediated forms of communication instead of talking to the other person, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. That way, they don’t have to think of a response immediately or face the person’s reaction.

But for important conversations, especially when stakes and emotions are high, a lack of non-verbal cues including body language, facial expressions, eye contact and tone of voice can often prevent two people from finding common ground to resolve conflict (divorce, for example), or cause them to project their fears or anger on a text message they have received.

Instant messaging is convenient and efficient for communicating factual information, but when a message or the situation is ambiguous, this form of communication can leave a permanent mark on a relationship, or end developing or fragile ties.

For example, I might write a simple message: “I feel like this is not going anywhere, you are not respectful and I don’t know how to carry on.”

Many people reading that might conclude that the writer wants to end their relationship. However, if I read it out loud and sound frustrated teary in the process, they would conclude that the person is feeling hurt and needs comfort.

This example may give some insight into how relationships may have ended due to miscommunication, and how they might contribute to misunderstanding or lead someone to overreact.

Communications involving sensitive topics can be tricky, and without verbal cues, you leave the receiver in the dark about your feelings and intentions. The result can be completely unexpected.

To avoid this, it pays to simply to call the other person and have a meaningful conversation. Or try the old-fashioned way – face-to-face communication.

Even when divorcing couples both seek to develop effective and respectful communication for the sake of their children, I often help them to adopt “I-message” techniques to defuse conflict and help the other parent see how they can be part of the solution for the children.

This technique has nothing to do with your smartphone, but is aimed at opening up about your feelings.

Parents Forever, an educational programme developed by the University of Minnesota, describes I-messages as a way to tell the other person how you feel, what has happened to make you feel that way, and what he or she can do to help change the situation.

This is not easy to remember. Being able to reflect one’s feelings takes courage, practice and the belief that the other parent cares.

For most teenagers, instant messaging is the norm in communication. It is vital to be more careful about how your message might come across and try to maintain the type of balance we find in spoken conversations. Try to see how the other will read your message. The recipient will not know that when you were typing your response, you might have been between classes or you just had a bad day.

If in doubt, a text to explain that you were typing in a hurry, and might therefore sound a little abrupt or unfriendly, could make the difference between keeping or losing your friendship, especially a new one.

For people who find social communications a challenge (those exhibiting Asperger’s traits, for example), it might seem easier to communicate online as you can respond at your own pace, but it is much harder to develop interpersonal skills via text compared with in-person or phone conversation. You need non-verbal cues and real-time responses from the recipient to learn how to interact appropriately. Different people communicate differently – that is what makes human interaction unique but confusing at the same time.

Lora Lee is a registered child psychologist and divorce co-parenting counsellor working in private practice in Hong Kong