It has been said that 90% of problems are failures in communication. And the other 10% are failures to understand the failure in communication. In the publishing business, or any business for that matter, this is so true. There are a couple common barriers to effective communication: assumption and expectation.
But I Assumed
Often one party assumes knowledge that the other person does not know. Or someone without knowledge fails to admit their lack and tries to fake their way through the situation for fear of being found ignorant. Simple to fix. Just ask if you don’t know; and, alternatively, make sure the other person knows what you are talking about. I try to learn something new nearly every day and hope to continue that streak for the rest of my life.
But even worse, and more common, is assuming the other party is mad at you for some reason. The fear of that assumed anger prevents an open dialogue or at least delays it.
Much of our business comes down to relationships, and fear or anger prevent them from being healthy.
Why Don’t You Answer?
I once had a client terminate their relationship with our agency because I did not answer their emails fast enough or had ignored them entirely. I was bewildered by this and tracked down the problem. My records showed a consistent pattern of answering everything the same day or shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the author’s email server was intercepting 40% of my emails, declaring them spam and not delivering them. (They weren’t even sent to the client’s spam folder!) Unfortunately, the author’s trust in me had been broken (due to technological error), and we went our separate ways.
This taught me a good lesson about expectations when it comes to email in particular. Make sure you have an early conversation with your agent or editor or publicist to set out reasonable times for replies. And if that timing goes too long, find out if the email was ever received.
It is ironic that we used to make jokes about the Postal Service losing mail. Now it is more likely that a server doesn’t deliver or receive an email. Once a client told me they found an email in their draft folder that they thought they had sent to me and had been wondering why I had not yet replied. Just last week, a client and I discovered that her two reply emails to me disappeared. I thought she might have been sick or otherwise out of commission. She called me on the phone, and all was well.
Silence Is Molten
When someone doesn’t reply and days roll by without an answer, the tendency is to start thinking the worst. “They have bad news.” “They hate me.” “My career is over.” “Steve thinks I’m annoying.” “My publisher is going to cancel my contract.” “They have discovered that I really don’t know how to write.” None of these thoughts are true. But you feel the need to fill in the silence with some answer. And eventually the answer turns volcanic, at least in our minds. Out of that comes discontent and despair, and depression or anger begins.
Every person has their own preference in communicating. I have one client who does not use email and prefers a fax(?!) or phone call. Another does not ever want to talk on the phone; email only. Another said, “Email me before you call so I can drive close enough to the local cell tower so my phone can get a signal, I don’t have any bars in my house.” We try our best to accommodate each client’s unique communication styles. But we aren’t always perfect.
Grace Is the Solution
Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Email can sound stern and unyielding, even angry, in tone. (I’ve been told I “sound” mean and angry!) So before assuming (see above), grant a measure of grace. The ease of email makes it simple to fire off something without adding a couple filters.
It may be that your editor or agent was called into a meeting for the day. Your agent may be traveling or immersed hip-deep in a complicated contract. The editor may have twenty fires to put out before they go home for the day, none of which they had anticipated when they got to work that morning. Give that editor or agent another day before lighting the fuse.
Oh, and if you want to rant to your agent about your editor, make sure you double, no triple, check the “To” line before you click SEND. The auto-complete function in your email system can be trouble if you are not careful–trust me.
What other barriers to communication have you run into?
[An earlier version of this post ran in March 2012. Interesting how the principles still hold true, even when examples change.]