Communication in a digital era

4 tips to get the message across in non-face-to-face communications


Guillermo Fuentes, MBA, Fitch & Associates

In-person human communication allows for the exchange of information to be both oral and visual. Body language, posture, hand movement and positioning (proximity or distance) tells as much about what is being communicated as the words that are being exchanged. The visual cues and performance during the exchange play a vital role in the communication of the message, both how it is transferred and how it is received. This can often be lost or misinterpreted in non-person-to-person communications, such as email and text.

To get an understanding of how to more effectively transmit and receive information in verbal, in-person formats, it is best to understand that there are several communication styles that can be utilized. No one has just one communication style; they will drift between styles depending on circumstance, but everyone does have dominant communication styles. There are four basic communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive.

The visual cues and performance during the exchange play a vital role in the communication of the message, both how it is transferred and how it is received. This can often be lost or misinterpreted in non-person-to-person communications, such as email and text.
The visual cues and performance during the exchange play a vital role in the communication of the message, both how it is transferred and how it is received. This can often be lost or misinterpreted in non-person-to-person communications, such as email and text. (Photo/Getty Images)
  • Passive communication style is characterized by lack of desire for conflict, so the communicator won’t express feeling verbally, and will physically avoid eye contact and have poor posture. Generally, a passive communicator has significant resentment and anger.
  • Aggressive communicators often want to take a center role or be in positions of authority. Verbally, aggressive communicators issue commands, threats, attacks and other dominating words. Their body language will be of intense focus, with strong eye contact and close proximity.
  • Passive-aggressive communicators will not express how they specifically feel or what they want (similar to passive), but physically will give the silent treatment or the cold shoulder (more associated with aggressive body language). While verbally, the styles seem very similar, the differences between passive and passive-aggressive communication styles can easily be identified visually.
  • Assertive communicators can express their needs but also practice active listening to be inclusive of others’ feelings. Their body language is warm and inviting, while also being strong. Assertive communicators know what they want and expresses it in a way that is receptive by others

Many questions arise when communication is not face to face. Today’s era is by no means the first time people are communicating in non-verbal formats. Letters, telegrams and telegraphs were used for years. In fact, the telegraph might be considered the first “instant message,” and while somewhat slower, the telegram was actually an early form of text as it was often a pay-by-the-word form that would eliminate as many unnecessary words as possible to save on the cost of delivery.


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This is not to say that non-verbal communication is not highly effective. On the contrary, a well written letter or email gives the author ample time to select the right words to express thoughts, meaning and emotion that they may not be able to express verbally (especially if they are a passive communicator in face-to-face encounters). Think of some of the greatest poetry and novels ... when well written, all the styles stated above can be easily identified. But it takes practice, time and skill to become fully proficient in such a manner. And time is something we just do not seem to have as much of today. Technology has allowed us to overcome some of this dilemma. We’ve entered a digital age that uses instant messages, texts, gifs and even pictograms.  

So how does one effectively communicate in the digital era? How does a text message convey what is at least 50% visual? How many of us have used emojis to try to convey a feeling or preemptively defuse a situation of hurt feelings? And it’s not just about what is being sent ... it’s how we receive it. How many of us, for example, have received a short two-word answer in response to a long text only to be insulted because we thought we were being ignored?

Could it be the medium and how we have been trained to communicate that is at fault? We as humans from birth are trained to be visual communicators. We interpret so much of what we feel from what we see (babies look at mothers for visual cues of affection). Secondly, we are trained to hear. Tone, volume and speech patterns are being interpreted as well as the words spoken. When this is transferred into a digital format, it must be condensed into written text on a screen that is no more than a couple of inches long. Knowing all this, there are four things to remember:

  1. Try to be an assertive texter. The receiver cannot differentiate between passive, aggressive or passive aggressive. Text what you feel and want up front and be receptive to the response.
  2. Remember that short responses are not a sign of being ignored, but rather they represent the split second of communication thought in the moment.
  3. However, be conscious of the short response, as it does not always fully express what you mean and remember that the receiver only has that to go by.
  4. Finally, limit typed messages to communicate action or happy thoughts. It is not advisable to use text messages for bad news or reprimands.  

In conclusion, be mindful of what is being communicated. What is the best medium for the message you want to convey? Understanding that information can be communicated, received and processed in different manners is extremely important. How often have you had to say, “that’s not what I meant” in response to something interpreted by the other party? This is especially true when using instant digital communications. Anything that requires more explanation or deeper conversation should be left to dialog that involves both visual and/or verbal cues ... or at least a very well thought out email or letter.

About the author

Guillermo Fuentes, MBA, leads Fitch & Associates’ communications and technology practice as chief operating officer. His experience in public safety operations, communications, technology and senior administration is wide ranging. He is a leading expert on the analysis, design and deployment/risk management for public safety agencies. He supervises statistical and operational analysis, computer modeling and the development of deployment plans as well as major technology purchases and communications center installations for clients.

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