Joint Base Charleston


Face-to-Face Engagements "in lieu of email"

By Lt. Col. Terry Tyree | 437th Operations Support Squadron commander | October 14, 2015

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In my experience, there is a definite art to effectively communicating thoughts and ideas to colleagues, subordinates and, especially, your boss. Some will argue that the educational process for communication began for all of us back in elementary school. Our teachers taught us that simple ways of doing business will stand the test of time.  When communicating, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting (eye contact) and a firm handshake...nothing. I know this sounds old-fashioned but I believe it's true. Some of our most successful leaders in the Air Force (officer, enlisted, and civilians) are skilled negotiators...i.e., they've mastered the art of face-to-face engagements. As technology changes and new methodologies are created, I feel we tend to lose focus on the basics of effective communication.

When I entered the Air Force in November 1990, I was assigned to an E-3 Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) flying squadron as an enlisted aircrew member at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. In the early 1990s, there were no smartphones or the heavy reliance on email that exists today. We had old-school typewriters, suitcase-sized cellular phones and pagers, carbon-copy documents, and we went to the finance cage to get cash advances before going on temporary duty (TDY). Everything was awesome because our lives were simple! I recall only one computer in the squadron and it was shared by all.  The primary means of communication was using face-to-face engagements "in lieu of email." This meant breaking out of the comfort of your cubicle, office space or work center and physically getting out to be with your Airmen and civilians. I'm the first to agree that this is easier said than done. Non-verbal cues such as body language, demeanor and gestures can accent your message in person but they cues are lost in emails.  

During my career, I've sent more than a few emails that were misconstrued or taken out of context. After all, how many of us actually receive formal "netiquette" training? Email netiquette such as using ALL CAPS, exclamation points! or awkward symbols ;-) can easily be misinterpreted. 

Our backgrounds shape how we communicate. Let's use the 437 OSS as an example. The 437 OSS is a diverse squadron comprised of 40 civilians and 150 Airmen spread across nine flights from seven Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs). Since we all come from a variety of backgrounds around the globe, none of us see things the same way...even if we're looking at the same words. defines Communication as..."the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs." Some interpret this as sending an email; while others may take a different approach in deciding how communicate. How many times have you heard stories about peers crafting angry emails and sending them it to an entire squadron or to their bosses, without taking the emotion out of the communication and keeping it professional? It happens more that you think. Emails are often taken out of context too...meaning, the intended message to be conveyed is not what actually got typed with your fingertips. Why not remove all the guess work from an email and maximize communication via a quick phone call or a short face-to-face meeting. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll build professional relationships allowing you to resolve issues much faster.   

I have a 19-year old nephew who spends 80% of his day gaming online, while using his smart phone to text and surf the net. He is quite the multitasker. Now, there is nothing wrong with all of that. After all, I played lots of Atari and Nintendo when I was growing up. However, too much technology and not enough social interaction with "real people" has led my nephew to become socially inept and awkward around friends, family and people in general. Honestly, he doesn't know how to have a normal face-to-face conversation. My point is ...effective personal interaction and working well with others is a priceless skillset that I believe is being hindered by the information age. The ability to communicate successfully during face-to-face engagements (or quick phone calls) helps your negotiation skills. It helps you as a supervisor and pays huge dividends. These dividends include establishing personal and professional relationships within your respective squadrons/units and the ability to solve issues more quickly with our JB mission partners.

Emails can detract from time better spent with your people. As a commander, I typically get anywhere from 30 to 45 emails daily. Reading, understanding and replying to emails consumes approximately two to three hours more out of my duty day.  That adds up to a lot of time that I'm not spending "out-n-about" with our Airmen and civilians. In summary, we're talking about getting out from behind our cubicles or offices, getting to know our people (with a face and a name) and getting to know their stories. That's how we should be leading in today's Air Force.  A face-to-face engagement coupled with a firm handshake goes a long way when establishing professional relationships. Don't get me wrong, at times a quick email may be appropriate However; we shouldn't make email our primary means of communication.  So, the next time you think about typing up an email or texting message, remember that establishing personal and professional relationships with "face-to-face engagements" has a positive and enduring impact on the people you lead.