This past week I spent 7 hours in a “sulha.” A sulha is an middle eastern conflict resolution tradition, an attempt to bring together parties with severe differences, probe the issues, and leave in a different place than when the sulha started.
What caused the need for this sulha? Email. Huh? Yes, you were expecting some family honor issue, or a deep ideological divide. Nope. The sulha revolved around a series of emails in a start-up I am part of (I am the Chairman of the Board) which spiraled out of control, and almost caused the company itself to run off track. What happened? A simple misunderstanding, a word used in a context that was out of place.
Email is a valuable medium. Email is based on thousands of years of written communication. The written word in general has a core place in our Western tradition. In fact, I am part of a people who are literally called the “people of the book,” and the written words take center stage in our life. But on the other hand, it is people who read the book, aloud, and discuss the written word on a regular basis. The written word on its own is dry, unforgiving, lifeless.
In our modern culture we are in tension between constant communication that is anything but real soulful communication. Over 100 years, in ever speeding evolution, we have moved from the Pony Express, to telegraph, to fax, to email, to SMS, to instant message, and then disparate variations (Facebook messages, wall posting, Twitter tweets, 4square check-ins, and more). But what about talking? Somehow we keep inventing new ways to avoid actually talking to one another.
I broke my entrepreneurial teeth 15 years ago helping to disrupt the telecommunications industry (in co-founding Delta Three [NASDAQ: DDDC]). The first business conference I ever spoke at was “Talking on the Net,” the pre-cursor to the successful VON series of conferences sponsored by my good friend (and now business partner) Jeff Pulver. Then we were sure that we were part of a wave of technology advancement that would allow people to talk more. We believed that “free” speech (or at least very low cost) would make the world a better place. I still believe that, and have seen how in using technology to avoid speaking we sometimes “communicate” at each other, rather than with each other.
Oh, we don’t think we are avoiding speaking. We think we are communicating. But when we rely too much on written words, we lose the meaning. In the Jewish tradition the written word never stands alone, and even though is said to be the word of God, it is the oral interpretive tradition that takes precedence in Jewish law. It is the conversation of the study hall that talks through the issue raised in the written tradition.
A lesson I shared in the sulha process last week was one I learned from a CFO I worked with many years ago at a company called Omnisky. His name is Larry, and he had a “2 email rule.” Put simply, if an issue did not get resolved with 2 emails being exchanged, the parties needed to at least speak to each other by phone, if not meet in person. Not sure what Larry would say about tweets, but I am sure he would not be in favor of conversations based on tweets running back and forth. Sure, for very short staccato type messages Twitter/SMS is fine. “Where are you?,” “I am here,” and so on. But even then…we lose some much in not hearing the other person.
At Omnisky, which acquired a company I started called NomadIQ, we were pioneering mobile email (a distant competitor at the time was a start-up called RIM with a device called Blackberry, we didn’t think they would make it, we were writing software for the Palm OS platform….). We did not imagine then the rapid back and forth communication that would soon emerge with Blackberry, Iphone, and now Android. Push email was still cumbersome then – you had to pull down your email (like walking out to the curb to check if the mail came yet).
Have advances in technology helped? Sure, I enjoy being able to be out with my family for the day but still be “on-line” for important email messages, releasing me from needing to sit in an office or next to my laptop. But a blackberry (or an iphone) or even a laptop is no solution for a phone call, or for an in-person meeting when possible.
Recently, in a meeting with a senior person at a large mobile operator, I was told that they “value voice at zero.” It’s all about data. Well, at some levels I agree that voice is a data application. But she (and her team) is forgetting that voice is THE application. All other applications are but a distant cousin of voice. And we do expect service providers to helps us talk to one another, not only at one another. Posting a thought on Facebook is cute, but it doesn’t rise to level of intellectual conversation, even with healthy comments.
Too often meaning is lost when we rely only on the written word, especially today when the written word comes so cheap (when you wrote in stone you gave it a lot of thought before etching out those words…).
I know we cannot turn back the clock, and people will not suddenly put down their mobile email device of choice, SMS and Twitter will continue to be influential medium. But perhaps we can all remember the Larry rule, and if it looks like a conversation is going off course, pick up the phone. Talk it through. Try it, it works.