Fixing Workplace Communication, Chapter 02, Part 01

So, I am writing a book with what some would say is an unrealistic goal: fixing workplace communication. With such a goal in mind, I believe ongoing feedback must be an essential part of the writing process. So, I decided to share my work as it evolves. 

This issue of Generative Communication includes the first part of Chapter 02. I am excited to receive your feedback, ideas, questions, and insights. Please share them here.

02: The Way We Communicate 

“Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” — Desmond Tutu 

Humans are born to communicate. As our species evolved, we developed the capability to pass information and describe what we think, feel, and imagine — a skill that has served us well for creating things together. Almost every single thing created by humans couldn’t have been made without our ability to communicate and reshape our reality. To our knowledge, we are the only species that can do that. 

At the same time, communication is not trivial, even with these extraordinary skills, and in the past couple of decades, it has become even less so. Each of us is a different person, with different knowledge and experience and a different way of thinking. And while we acknowledge that rationally, we often communicate with others, assuming they know exactly what we know and think just like we do. We believe we and our partners in the conversation are starting at the same point and walking the same logical path, and this assumption dominates our interactions. Creating a common ground for communication is already challenging when interacting with one individual. Dealing with multiple people simultaneously demands even more attention, intent, flexibility, and typically more time. It is anything but trivial. Even when we are aware of that and theoretically know how to overcome these challenges, something usually goes wrong, especially when it comes to workplace communication. 

In the past twenty years, I’ve written hundreds of articles and blog posts, created dozens of workshops and led hundreds of them, delivered many talks, and written a book. I write for an audience I don’t personally know all the time. In parallel, I am often engaged in bidirectional interactions. I can craft and deliver a message. I do my best to listen and be attentive when leading a workshop or a one-on-one mentoring session. I developed these skills over time and with practice. I learn and improve with every new text I write and every interaction I have. At the end of the day, when it comes to communicating ideas and absorbing new ones, I think one could do worse. But with all my knowledge and experience, and no matter how much I love writing, teaching, and listening, I frequently failed in daily workplace communication. I could write a great article that sparked a real, meaningful dialogue and the next day write an email that triggered an infinite thread of misunderstandings and anything but an effective bottom line. I could deliver a workshop and receive great feedback, and later that day, engage in an endless ping-pong of WhatsApp messages, often as short as one word (which obviously wasn’t the last). I was a good communicator and the worst communicator at the same time. I fell into all the traps and pitfalls of workplace communication and unintentionally created some myself. I could have easily agreed with all the statements in the quick self-test in the previous chapter. With some of them, I can even agree today. I should have known better. I did know better, but something in how we communicate in the workplace simply took over and was almost impossible to overcome. 

So, I began to wonder. If I can deliver a message to an audience, why do I feel I am not well understood when writing emails? If I can phrase a solid argument in an article, why am I being laconic in my office communication? If I can lead a successful workshop with a group of people I don’t know, why do so many meetings I lead feel like a waste of time? What makes workplace communication so radically different? And how can I improve the way I communicate with my colleagues, managers, and team at work based on what I do with my audience and clients? I had a good sense of what effective communication should look like, but I had to take a few steps back and ask myself what affects how we experience workplace communication. The answer appeared to depend on the nature of our interactions. 

Real-Time Communication 

When we say humans are designed to communicate, we naturally think about Real-Time Communication. This is the form of communication we are wired for: Immediate, direct, and bidirectional communication. 

Real-Time Communication, as the name suggests, is immediate. As we will soon see, for the past couple of decades, more and more of our interactions feellike they are immediate, but this is just a mirage. Real-time, in this context, means two or more people interacting now, with no delay other than the one needed to listen and process the ideas being exchanged in a face-to-face conversation. At this point, I am not suggesting that this is either good or bad. As with many of the things we will discuss, it depends.

Immediacy is sometimes needed to ignite a discussion and spark creative ideas. However, in quite a few cases, we should delay our response to allow more effective processing and a more profound dialogue. For now, let’s acknowledge that Real-Time Communication is confined to a concrete time when everyone is fully engaged and attentive. By definition, it is an activity you cannot do alone. 

The second attribute of Real-Time Communication is being direct and unmediated. Obviously, this means that you communicate directly with one or more people without a mediator. But I’ll go further than that to say that Real-Time Communication does not involve any recorded medium, be it textual, visual, or auditory, which is a fancy way to say that Real-Time Communication is based on talking directly. Again, without saying anything for or against it (at this point), I consider any variant of email, documents, or instant messaging, be it textual or voice-based, to be indirect, no matter how quickly we seem to get a response. 

Being immediate and direct does not mean we cannot use a digital platform for remote communication. A discussion held in a video call certainly falls within the boundaries of Real-Time Communication. The nature of such tools and how they emulate an actual face-to-face interaction turn them into means of Real-Time Communication. As we will soon see, in many cases, it is the only viable solution for having a real conversation — the kind of conversation we are wired for. 

Real-Time Communication’s third and last attribute is being bidirectional and on equal terms. A speech or any other kind of monologue, even if it is delivered live, is not considered Real-Time Communication. For Real-Time Communication, I need to be able to respond in real time. As long as I am merely a listener, the communication is not bidirectional. A speech or a long monologue could undoubtedly be valid and valuable options in some cases. Still, they don’t allow real-time interaction between the speaker and the people who are essentially the audience. 

Real-Time Communication has two primary variants in the typical workplace: informal (mostly spontaneous) interactions and formal (always prescheduled) meetings.

Informal interactions happen all the time, constituting an essential part of our workplace communication. A random encounter by the coffee machine, having lunch together, any unplanned interaction within a team working together, or a morning chitchat that evolves into a discussion about a significant task. All these instances of communication, which, unfortunately and unjustifiably, become scarcer as we move to a distributed and remote work mode, are immediate, direct, and bidirectional. These conversations don’t have to be all work-related, but they are still informal and mostly unplanned even when they are. You don’t expect them to have an agenda or a bottom line, and their content will almost always remain between the people having the conversation. And while part of this description may sound negative to some, informal interactions often drive problem-solving, innovation, and creativity forward. I would argue that many teams develop more creative ideas and solutions during informal interactions than in formal meetings. But even more important, when people complain about the ineffectiveness of workplace communication, they rarely complain about these casual encounters. If anything, this kind of communication makes people more engaged and connected to their teams, colleagues, and the organization. For the most part, it is not broken.

When I say “we need to talk less,” I am notreferring to informal interactions. On the contrary, we must maintain our ability to communicate informally in real time as we move to a distributed work setup. It is not trivial, but it is essential. 

When it comes to formal meetings and discussions, the typical reaction is the opposite. People feel they attend too many meetings, that most of them are ineffective or irrelevant, and that these meetings prevent them from doing actual work. Real-Time Communication is natural, and when it is informal and unplanned, it mostly works. But when you add the formal setup of a prescheduled meeting, Real-Time Communication suddenly loses its edge. From the most natural way to interact, it often becomes a burden. It becomes a problem we need to address.

This is a perfect time for another reflection on yourexperience, this time in the context of Real-Time Communication and, more specifically, formal, real-time interactions.

Take a few minutes to reflect on your previous week at work and consider the following questions: 

  • How many scheduled meetings did you have?
  • Did you feel at least some of them got in the way of doing your work?
  • How many of these meetings resulted in actionable outcomes?
  • How many of these meetings were effective considering their outcomes, the number of participants, and the time spent?
  • Were at least some of these meetings redundant? 
  • Think of one effective meeting and consider what made it stand out.

If, while reading this list of questions, you didn’t quite understand why we are even asking them, you are probably working in an organization that has managed to overcome the challenges of modern workplace meetings. If, however, following these questions, you realized (or recalled) that at least some discussions in your organization are far from effective, let me assure you: this is not how it should be. Real-Time Communication should and could still be much better. If we are wired for direct, immediate, and bidirectional communication, there is no reason why meetings shouldn’t be highly effective, even when they deal with complex technical or business challenges. 

Meetings should help us achieve more while imposing less overhead. And this is not just achievable; it should be the default. Real-Time Communication is the best way to exchange ideas, co-create, and solve problems when people are committed to a goal and dedicate their full attention to direct and uninterrupted interaction. It can create a meaningful conversation with positive feedback loops and energy that is hard to recreate in any other form of communication. When Real-Time Communication is done right and with the proper preparation and setup, it enables the fusion of ideas, and that is an engine of growth. 

So, what exactly went wrong with the formal branch of Real-Time Communication? Why aren’t we making the most of our formal meetings (let alone enjoying them)? And why is the typical meeting so different from our informal conversations with our colleagues at work? 

The key strength of Real-Time Communication is also one of its inherent limitations: it has to be done, well…, in real time. Effective Real-Time Communication relies on getting the undivided and uninterrupted attention of all participants, but, unfortunately, this makes Real-Time Communication unscalable. To influence a discussion, you must be part of it physically, in real-time. You can’t be part of the conversation if you have something more urgent to attend to. Your voice will be lost forever. And if you are in a different country, you can easily miss a meeting simply because it is dinner time in your time zone. As organizations became larger, teams became increasingly distributed, and tasks and projects became more complex, Real-Time Communication was no longer the first option in many cases. Another form of communication took the lead and, at some point, took over our lives. Unfortunately, it also had a devastating effect on the quality of our workplace communication — even the good old face-to-face interactions. 

Near-Time Communication 

Imagine a world where you can have a conversation with someone even if they are unavailable right now. Imagine a world where you could do that with dozens of people in parallel. Instead of finding a time when everyone is available to have a meeting, you can just write whatever you had in mind, send it, and get a response once people are free to read it. Imagine a world where such conversations are not only free from the boundaries of time but are also not confined to any physical location. You can interact with your colleagues from literally the other side of the world. Imagine a world where meetings are not the first option for interacting. You can share your ideas, ask questions, and have a conversation without the need to get everyone’s attention simultaneously. As a participant in such a discussion, you can respond when the time is right for you. Imagine a purely asynchronous world. 

Adopting email as a first-class tool should have solved the scalability problem of Real-Time Communication. Email was never meant to be an immediate form of communication. It should have allowed us to take the time and respond on our terms. It promised more effective communication, even if only because it made communication so easy. You no longer had to schedule meetings, free the time to attend them, and drop everything else. Email enabled us to communicate whenever, wherever, and with whomever we wanted. It enabled us to have zero-friction interactions. And then, it got out of control. 

In his book A World Without Email, Cal Newport describes how email became the most dominant form of workplace communication and its devastating side effects. The more widespread email became, the less productive we became. Instead of communicating when it suits us, we are now engaged in a constant conversation, leaving practically no time for meaningful, deep work — the work we are supposed to deliver. Email has enabled us to communicate more, but not in a good sense. We are lighter on the trigger because email is so easy to send. When our communication is mainly based on email, we are less happy and more stressed, and in a perfect correlation, we (and the organizations we work for) achieve less. What should have been the holy grail of communication became a double-edged sword with dramatic negative results. 

But even if we put all these adverse outcomes aside (and we shouldn’t really), email is a poor communication method. Even if your sole intention is to share an idea, get information, solve a problem together, or get some collective insight, email is one of the least effective platforms we can use. It is just not designed to enable a real, meaningful conversation. At least not as we commonly use it today. 

Not long after email became a standard communication method, it became the textual replacement for real-time conversations. It is delayed but assumes (or demands) a high level of responsiveness. It is textual, but unlike other textual content, it is threaded and often includes nested chains of statements, counter-statements, questions, and replies. At the same time, it is flat in the sense that everything appears urgent or has the same priority. It is not organized as any other text you would read and process. Email should have allowed us a high level of asynchrony, but instead, we treat it almost always as a synchronous way of communicating without anything in its design to support that. 

And then came instant messaging and made our interactions even worse. If email was a poor substitute for Real-Time Communication, instant messaging was email on steroids. Dialogues and conversations became more intensive. The overhead of sharing anything with any number of people became even smaller. Messages became shorter, and the information they embedded became more volatile. We were expected to be even more responsive to instant messaging than we were to emails (they are, after all, instant). As teams became even more distributed, many assumed that instant messaging should replace not just meetings and emails but even informal, real-time interactions. 

Cal Newport refers to email and instant messaging as “Asynchronous Communication,” but this term is misleading. Technically, both these platforms could be usedasynchronously. Occasionally, they are. But for the most part, we use emails and instant messaging to replace real-time conversations without considering that they are a poor replacement for face-to-face interactions. I prefer to call this type of communication Near-Time Communication.

Near-Time Communication is any method that tries to simulate Real-Time Communication without being immediate and direct. Sadly, with the attempt to emulate real-time interactions on non-real-time platforms, communication has become severely compromised.

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