Lately I have been trying to remind myself that whenever I have something touchy, sensitive, or otherwise difficult to say to — or about — somebody, it’s probably a good idea to do it in person. Ideally, in the same place at the same time, not on the phone, or via Skype. It’s something I like to call Actual Reality (AR®).
A news story here in Illinois last week drove home that very basic principal. I’m a proud graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but that pride has taken another in a long list of recent hits. The U of I is beset by troubles right now – in the athletic department, and in its academic administration. It’s facing a lawsuit about the hiring/firing of a faculty member. It’s all pretty complicated and deserving of its own treatment. I bring it up here only to explain the news story I mentioned earlier. Last week, emails between then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise and other administrators became public (despite their best efforts to prevent that).
The cache of correspondence is not flattering, and I don’t know where to begin on the content. But it provided a brilliant example of the virtues of AR®.
If you’re a bigwig, of course, worried about scandal, it has the virtue of really keeping it between you and another person.
But apart from the CYA aspect, with all the texting and email and online surveys and Facebook memes, and posts and Tweets, the only truly interactive communication we still have is in-person conversation.
You are forced to look at the person you’re about to communicate with, unlike when you’re sitting at a keyboard alone, building a righteous, ironclad argument about why you’re absolutely right and the other person is dead wrong. You’re less likely to be glib or snarky, and you have the opportunity to correct, steer, and recalibrate in real time.
Seeing that person will probably make you measure your words more carefully. To read facial expression and body language. And the other person will have the same opportunity with you.
And if you’re talking about controversial issues and making tough decisions, it’s more likely that at some point, one of you will look at the other and realize, “Hmm, maybe what we’re contemplating isn’t such a great idea.”
Moreover, it means that whatever you are discussing is important enough for you to have taken the time and trouble to be in the same room at the same time. And important things usually do merit such effort.
I’m not preaching on this one. I’ve done my share of stupid online responses, via e-mail or unwise and unfair Facebook comments. This is more a NOTE TO SELF: If someone says something online that concerns you and that might possibly warrant any back-and-forth, don’t type a response, type a note to yourself to take the matter up the next time you’re together.
And if it’s not worth getting together to do that, it probably doesn’t warrant the time.