In The Beginning: 5 Lessons From Recent Phone Calls

Wednesday was a good day. For the first time in long while, I wasn’t rushing anywhere. I had time to focus on the three “P’s” – projects, paperwork and phone calls. And while the first two went fairly well (apparently there’s additional paperwork needed to go along with the paperwork I finished – sigh), my phone calls contained some unexpected lessons in communication.

What were these unexpected lessons? And how can they be applied to your phone conversations?

Two of the calls I made were to colleagues I know well and have worked with over the past three to four years. One of them I definitely consider a friend. Yet both phone calls had rough beginnings, a moment where I could hear that I was intruding or interrupting, that I wasn’t “welcome”. Surprised, I stuttered a bit and tripped over my words, briefly lost my focus.

Once the calls ended, I spent much of the day and evening wondering, “Why did that happen?” I believe each call was impacted by a number of factors and by each participant: 

  1. My calls were received on cell phones and did interrupt the other person. They were doing something else; my timing was not good. To “tell” me this, they spoke with clipped words and a chilly tone. I do understand; I’ve done this myself (and you probably have, too). But there are better options: (a) if a call is a terrible interruption … let it go to voicemail. That’s so much better than a chilly beginning to what could be an important conversation. Or (b), don’t answer the call quickly. Use the first ring to stop what you’re doing, decide that you’re going to answer and – although it sounds silly – put a smile on your face. It will change the sound of your voice and you won’t “throw” your annoyance at the caller. All phone calls are an interruption; none of us are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. By answering between the 2nd and 3rd ring, instead of the first, you can make sure you welcome the caller.
  2. Each of these individuals answered so quickly, they may not have looked at call display and this could have impacted their tone. Knowing it was me, both of them could have quickly said, “Didn’t want to ignore your call, Mary Jane, but this isn’t a good time. I will call you back.” Long-standing relationships allow for this and we should do it more often.
  3. Because I know both these people, I did start my conversation with … “How are you?” … and it wasn’t appreciated. Both colleagues got a bit defensive. Why? Because they heard that I wanted to chat, that I wasn’t going to be efficient. Starting with “The reason for my call ..” would have been a lot less awkward.
  4. Assumptions played a role in both calls. For one of them, I had left a detailed message the day before and said I’d call again. When they answered the next day, I assumed they knew what I was calling about, but their gruff “What’s up?” indicated they had not listened to my message. This is SO common today. We must stop making assumptions about who’s listening to voicemail. The other call followed up to an email. They assumed I understood that if they hadn’t replied, the answer was “no”. That had not occurred to me. (This is my continual life lesson … don’t make any assumptions!)
  5. One of the calls contained information that the other person thought was “bad news” or at least disappointing for me, so it was difficult for them to relax into the conversation and be direct. But being indirect is a sure sign that something is not being said. It can create defensiveness or impatience. When we have something uncomfortable to say, it is best to say it as soon as possible. If necessary, we can preface it with “I’m uncomfortable saying this to you but … ” or “I think you’re going to be disappointed but …”.

All of us are spending less time talking on the phone. When you connect “voice-to-voice”, what do you do to make sure the conversation is effective?


6 thoughts on “In The Beginning: 5 Lessons From Recent Phone Calls”

  1. Oh my gosh yes to point #4, both the fact that people don’t listen to voicemail messages and the problems you can get into when you make assumptions. My question is why. Why do you think people don’t listen to their messages? Often I hear something along the lines of “Oh hi, I saw you called but I didn’t listen to the message.” But I’ve never asked “Why not?”

    • Thanks for this question, Dimitra. The main reason is time. Most of us are so overwhelmed, always looking for an “extra” few minutes, that when we see there’s a voicemail waiting, we actually make a choice between listening to that message and returning the call. The thought of entering all the necessary numbers on our phone to listen to the message … and then dialing the number and having a conversation … seems time intensive, so we choose to call instead. Also, voicemail messages are now treated like email messages and are allowed to “pile up” until we have time to listen to them. Of course, that time often never arrives. It is all about everyone feeling so overwhelmed.

  2. Great post!

    Re voicemail. My cell had a very cumbersome way of retrieving voice messages and I always loathed when someone left me a message. The phone recently had an update and now much easier to retrieve. I always listen to them though.

    • This is a great share, Peggy. Perhaps the technology around retrieving voicemail messages needs an upgrade. I know many people use voicemail to email as an option to help them stay on top of messages. And I know you always listen to your messages 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  3. Great post!

    Here are my 2 cents’ worth:

    1. I’ll never understand why people answer the phone when a) they can let it go to voicemail, or b) when they literally have no time to talk anyway. If you don’t have time to talk, don’t answer – period.
    2. I’m almost certain EVERYONE has call display these days. People should use it for its intended purpose – to prepare on how to answer the call.
    3.I usually start with “Did I catch you at a good time?” I find this asks permission to chat while also being positive in my tone.
    4. Do modern people honestly feel that a non-response from them to an email is equivalent to a NO? That is crazy? That isn’t right. What if the email got lost in cyberspace? Yes, people, THAT HAPPENS. If that is true, we should all stop asking yes/no questions by email.
    5. Nothing to add.

    • Thank you, Mick for these great comments. This is a blog post on it’s own and it is wonderful. While I’m not a big fan of the “time” question if it’s working for you, don’t change it. And yes, I’m going to do some other posts about misconceptions we carry around voicemail, email and no response.


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