Why You Need a “Lie Detector for Your Email”

The Wall Street Journal today had a much-needed article – take it as a warning – about how to, as the sub-head said, “read between the lines” to spot lies in your e-mails.

The scary part is that we need this training. We really need it.

The article reflects what I’ve been saying for years in my CLE programs: 80% of communication is non-verbal. Digital communications are convenient, but by their nature, incomplete. Some choice bits from the article:

“Experts say that the vast majority of our interpersonal communications involves body language – gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. Take these intangibles away, as we do with digital messages, and we are left with far fewer clues as to what is really going on.”

And here’s an especially juicy one: “Research shows people tend to be suspicious of information they receive online but override their suspicions and trust the information anyway.”

Whew. Even lawyers? The original paranoids? Yes. Unfortunately.

Missing from the article was information from earlier studies that have shown people are more willing to lie, tell half-truths and obfuscate in emails or text messages. Even people who wouldn’t do it to your face.

My urgent advice:

First, when you have a client who ONLY wants to communicate by email, and won’t talk to you in person or on the phone, be suspicious. Very, very suspicious. And expect some difficult – and too often messy – surprises.

Second, simplify your digital communications to avoid humor, sarcasm, implications – in other words, reduce your communications level to that you’d use with a 5-year-old. Simple. Facts. No chat.

Third, read it over before you send it to see if there is anything that might be misconstrued.

Fourth, never – let me repeat that – NEVER – give anything that could be construed as legal advice in a text message. Your clients pay you not just for your legal skills but your “careful and thoughtful consideration” of every aspect of their matter. And text messages encourage reactive thinking. So, while I suggest (in vain) that attorneys do not communicate with clients via text messages, at least consciously keep it to non-legal, purely procedural stuff like confirming a meeting. Never express an opinion in a text message.

Fifth, always have your radar up with all incoming communications. Expect that there will be incomplete communications, intentional or unintentional obfuscations, half-truths, omissions. Expect that they and you will likely misinterpret something somewhere.

And finally, whenever you feel uncomfortable, unclear, confused with any incoming communication, seek deeper communication. Pick up the phone. Meet with them personally if possible. Because if email communications aren’t sufficiently communicating everything to both sides, more email isn’t likely to help. Eyeballs work best, voices are the next best choice.

Remember that for some clients, a grievance or malpractice suit is an easy answer. But it won’t be for you. You need to arm yourself against a problem you may not sufficiently understand. So read the whole article. And heed its – and my – advice.