Not everything can be done “offline” using async communication. When done right, real-time face-to-face meetings can have immense value depending, of course, on the nature of the discussion and its goals. Many things we typically discuss (or just present) in meetings don’t require simultaneously being in the same room (even if it is a virtual room). But some do.
Brainstorming, for example, can truly benefit from the unmediated real-time interaction between different people with different thoughts and perspectives. An effective brainstorming is like a dance: one idea is built on top of the previous ones, and the dynamics are as important as what is being said. A conversation when you share your feedback with an employee or a colleague is also more natural when done face-to-face. Reading the other person’s reactions and taking them into account as you navigate the conversation is irreplaceable. Sending your written feedback to someone you are working with is rarely a good idea, even when the input is 100% positive.
This is not to say that offline writing is not part of the effective communication flow in these scenarios. Brainstorming, providing feedback, and many other types of interactions benefit greatly from preparation. Thinking about what you would like to say is essential. Capturing that in writing is even better. Writing helps us process our thoughts, logically arrange them, and refine them to communicate more effectively.
But writing can be helpful beyond just preparation for these meaningful discussions. Sometimes, cutting the meeting and turning back to writing can help the team move the conversation forward and achieve better results.
Stop the Meeting and go Writing
Conversations should flow. That’s what we are taught and see in movies and TV shows. It is difficult to think of a conversation that stops every five minutes as effective communication. But there are cases where taking a different route — a temporary detour — is the best thing we can do to promote the discussion. In such cases, we don’t just need a break from the conversation — we need the space to process, contemplate, collect our thoughts, and generate new insights. The best way to create this space and utilize it is by writing.
Too Many Arguments
The word Argument has two meanings. It can refer to the reasoning someone provides to support their view. It can also mean a heated conversation, referring to how things are said more than their content. Surprisingly, taking a break to write can help in both these cases.
Whether the discussion is overheated or just bloated with different arguments going in different directions, there’s a huge benefit in disengaging for a while and using this time to make better sense of things. Separating the essence from the noise and arranging the main arguments is often a necessary step in these cases. Capturing what you’ve heard and understood in writing and then adding your own thoughts is a perfect way to do that. What is typically very difficult to do in real-time during such a discussion becomes a focusing activity that creates clarity when done quietly at your own pace. Having a tangible outcome of this thought process in the form of written text will help you utilize it when everyone regroups and continue the conversation.
It’s worth noting that the benefit doesn’t stop with making sense of the arguments others have articulated. Often, when discussions are overwhelming, gathering your thoughts is challenging. Writing your own ideas and reasoning enables you to refine them and decide how to articulate them effectively in the next meeting.
That’s a good segue to another case where disengaging the conversation and using the time off for writing is one of your best options. Some discussions, even when they are calm and coherent, are full of nuance and complex details. It could result from ineffective structure, but quite often, the nature of the topic being discussed sets the level of complexity.
When the challenge at stake calls for a nuanced discussion, the details often overwhelm us. By definition, the details are essential; they are the reason for having the discussion in the first place. Rushing the conversation and forcing everyone to form an opinion (or challenge the details) in real-time is not practical; in many cases, it will do more harm than good as we focus our attention on the highlights and tend to ignore the nuances. Taking some time off to capture the details in writing can help us contemplate and drill into the bits and bytes of the topic at our own pace. New insights naturally follow this activity — insights that are harder to generate in a face-to-face conversation, with further details added throughout the discussion.
Now, some of you might think, “Well, I can process things on the fly.” I know because I believe myself to be one of these people. My natural tendency is to respond rapidly, sometimes even assuming I know the next logical move. Leaving aside the realization that in many cases, we are wrong to assume that, no matter how quickly one can process things and respond, taking some extra time for more nuanced processing will improve your insights 100% of the time. It will enhance your reasoning even more as the issue under discussion becomes more complex and nuanced. I try to fight my inclination to jump with “the right” answer during a discussion. I can’t say I succeed every time, but when I do, I never regret delaying my response and generating more thought-out and processed insights in writing.
Going in Circles and Awkward Silences
Some discussions are the complete opposite. They are not cluttered with overwhelming details and complex arguments; they seem to be going in circles, repeating the same statements in different phrasings. Some conversations don’t even pretend to be going anywhere: they are just stuck without anyone saying anything to move them forward.
This is not to say that all these discussions are irrelevant and should be dismissed. The issues at their core might be essential and ones that require resolutions. The best way out of the deadlock in such cases is, as you can probably guess, to disengage and let things sink in before regrouping. When each of the participants takes the time to process the issue, there’s a greater chance to break the loop or find a way around the dead-end. Capturing your thoughts in writing and sharing them with the team before the next meeting will do wonders for the flow of the conversation.
If you are still feeling stuck when thinking about the issue offline, summarize the discussion done so far and continue to write associatively. Much of what you write will not be useful, but some might unconsciously lead you to surprising insights and new thinking paths.
Writing is one of the most effective methods for processing information, collecting your thoughts, and generating new insights. It is essential as a preparation for practically any interaction. No less important, it can move the discussion forward more effectively when you are stuck, overwhelmed, or when it is hard to follow a real-time conversation.
Spicing your communication flow with writing activities can improve the way you and your team interact and the results you eventually achieve.