Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will…actually come to think of it, words can hurt a lot more and their impact can last a lot longer. A little self-reflection probably reveals that the most painful experiences in our life are tied to communication, and more specifically to unethical communication. If we’re honest, we can probably recall a time when our words hurt more than we intended. We know this to be true, but what does it mean to communicate ethically? How can we best serve our organizations as ethical communicators?
Let’s start with a list of dos and don’ts and then explore each of the recommendations briefly.
• Take a negative tone
• Use only one communication method
• Identify your audience
• Stay true to your purpose
• Choose the right place, right time, and right medium
Repeat after me: “I will never, ever, EVER tell a lie.” We can never communicate ethically unless we always communicate truthfully. This is not a philosophy article, so we’ll save the “define truth” argument for another time. Each of us knows what is true and what is not. This includes admitting that the truthful answer may be, “I don’t know.” Much better to admit ignorance, while offering to find the answer, rather than trying to explain a lie (even an unintentional one). As an ethical communicator we have a responsibility to always, ALWAYS tell the truth.
Don’t take a negative tone
As an ethical communicator, we should avoid taking a negative tone. And remember, the tone is determined by the receiver. This means that we have to go above and beyond to keep our tone positive or at least neutral. Here’s a hypothetical example: You e-mail a budget request to all department directors requesting inputs no later than next Thursday. Less than a minute later you get a terse reply from the operations manager wanting to know why the request was not sent earlier and why the top-line figures were cut by an additional 10 percent from last year’s authorization. What do you do? Notice I asked, what do you do? Not what do you want to do? You probably want to reply to her e-mail with a reminder that this deadline was first announced two months ago and that the 10 percent cut was agreed upon during last year’s strategic summit.
Don’t use only one communication method
What you should do is change the method of communication, remembering that the tone is set by the receiver, not the sender. Pick up the phone, or better yet walk to her office, and listen first. After hearing her points, find a way to get what you need while taking into consideration her other competing priorities, keeping in mind that you’re both on the same team and ultimately want the same success for your organization. I know, easier said than done, but no one said that ethical communication was always going to be easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t need an article describing the dos and don’ts of what many believe to be common courtesy or even common sense.
The burden of responsibility is on the communicator to use the receiver’s preferred method of communication. Makes sense, right? Communicate on a channel where your receiver prefers to be and the chances of effective communication increase. When you communicate using only your preferences or communicate using only one method or medium you risk losing your audience who prefers to communicate using other methods or media. I like e-mail for a lot of reasons, but I understand that others prefer face-to-face or phone calls. It’s on me to learn and use my audience’s preferred communication methods.
Now that we’ve reviewed some of the don’ts, let’s move to some of the dos of ethical communication.
Do identify your audience
All ethical and effective communication starts with your audience. What are their needs and communication preferences? Why should they care about what you’re communicating? Once you answer these questions you can better address the purpose of your communication.
Do stay true to your purpose
Have you ever read an e-mail or hung up the phone wondering what the purpose was? Have you ever been guilty of sending an e-mail, making a call, or conducting a face-to-face meeting without identifying your purpose? Chances are good that the communication was not very effective. The responsibility for identifying and staying true to the purpose is on the communicator.
Do choose the right place, right time, and right medium
Even if you’ve correctly identified the audience and stayed true to your purpose, there’s another consideration to help ensure effective communication – choose the right time, right place, and right medium. Part of this will be self-evident when identifying your audience and purpose, but it’s always good to check one more time before firing off the e-mail, picking up the phone or scheduling the face-to-face meeting.
By practicing the dos and avoiding the don’ts, perhaps we can avoid the pain of unethical communication. I’ll save the advice for the ethical use of sticks and stones for another article.
Note: These recommendations are entitled “Dos and Don’ts” not “Laws” of ethical communication, meaning that others may have different ideas for how to best communicate ethically. Consider this a starting point for discussion. What other dos and don’ts would you like to share?
Alvin Plexico, Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.