It's Not Personal; It's Business

June 1, 2010

By Jennifer Morse

Face-to-face communication is becoming a lost art.

One of my favorite chick flicks is “You’ve Got Mail.” In the movie, Tom Hanks plays a character who owns a big chain bookstore and Meg Ryan’s character is the owner of a small corner bookstore previously owned by her mother.

The two communicate through e-mail to start. When they finally meet in person and Ryan’s character decides she no longer can stay in business due to this new bookstore, Hanks replies, “It’s not personal; it’s business.”

What is personal anymore?

Today we communicate more frequently via e-mail, text, voice mail and all sorts of other social media than face-to-face. We might think this is more efficient, as we can e-mail at any time of day or night to anyone—no matter what time zone they’re in or even if they work in the cubicle next to us. It’s easy to rationalize that through this “new” way of communicating we aren’t disturbing the other person, and it’s more convenient.

But we’ve come to rely on indirect communication. Have you ever been on vacation, or in an area where cell phones don’t work, and seen the frantic looks on people’s faces—as if they didn’t know how else to communicate?

I discussed this topic with my son, who enlightened me that even dating has changed. He explained that now you can simply look up the other person on Facebook and know all about them. You don’t need a real conversation.

I also experienced this phenomenon while coaching a manager about a performance appraisal. I asked, “How did the employee know your goals for her?” The answer: “I e-mailed them to her.” My follow-up question: “When did you sit down with the employee and talk about this? How do you know if the employee had any questions or understood what you meant?”

To evaluate whether you’ve lost the art of direct communication, consider:

• When was the last time you had more than a passing conversation with employees? Do you schedule individual time with them, on a regular basis? This practice can open up dialogue, help employees feel valued, develop commitment, and retain staff in your organization.
• Do you know when it’s better to pick up the phone and call someone or go see them in person? For example, isn’t it more appropriate to welcome a new employee to the organization in person, shake hands, make eye contact, and say, “Welcome to the team…”?
• What do you do if someone misunderstands your e-mail? First, stop the endless e-mails back and forth. Pick up the phone or meet face-to-face to clear the air.
• How do you avoid sending an e-mail or leaving a voice-mail message in haste that might be misinterpreted? Wait overnight. If it’s something that still bothers you the next day, compose a tactful e-mail, call the person, or request a face-to-face meeting.
• How do you address a delicate issue that applies to one person in your group? Talk to the individual. Don’t send an e-mail to the entire group when it applies to only one. The one person you want to reach might not even understand your point.

One of the most powerful tools we possess is the art of direct communication. Let’s use it.

JENNIFER B. MORSE is vice president of human resources at Empower Federal Credit Union, Syracuse, N.Y., and chair of the CUNA HR/TD Council ( Contact her at 315-214-6510 or at For more information about CUNA Councils, visit