The Paradox

The Paradox of Modern Communications

Over time, we have developed more and more ways to communicate with each other. We have in-person, cave paintings, drawings, body language, books, newspapers, magazines, the telephone, text messaging, email, smail, radio, television, blogs, chats, IMs, IRCs, comments, Gitter, Slack, Skype, Hangouts, documents ... you get the picture - the list just goes on and on. Though we have improved the methods of communications, have we improved quality? Are we more effective communicators or less in spite of the growing number of means we have available?

This topic, of effective communications, has become close to me lately as I have struggled through frustration (as both sender and receiver) with ineffective communications. This is the core of most of our troubles with relationships, ineffectiveness as teams and a major hindrance to reaching full potential.

What to do about it...

Communications can be much improved if we take a good look at how we communicate and through serious introspection build a framework of both understanding and decision making about how we communicate. This framework should be able to help us choose how to best communicate, what types of information we share and in what form. It supposes that we should be explicit in our dealings with communications (so as to reduce ambiguity). Reducing ambiguity is the essence of communicating effectively. There is a certain art to it - a balancing act between being unambiguous and concise. To do so takes time, practice, effort and (most importantly) understanding of the other side of the communication.

"This is the core of most of our troubles with relationships, ineffectiveness as teams and a major hindrance to reaching full potential."

I propose that if we can gain enough understanding to have some solid guidance towards communicating in a much more effective way, then benefits will far outweigh the costs. They will be so great that it would be foolish not to attempt to do so.

What do we stand to gain?

First of all, much more effective working relationships. More importantly, more fulfilling personal relationships. Better efficiency in problem solving. We can even have a better understanding of ourselves and our personal motivations if we attempt to understand how to communicate more effectively.

So what do we have to lose? 

Maybe we'll look least to some people for a little while. The least of our concerns given what we have to lose if we as a people don't get better at this. Then there is the vested much extra time will we invest going down wrong paths due to poor communications?

A closer look...

Let's take a closer look at each of the benefits of communicating more effectively so that we have a better understanding of why we might want to take the next steps.

First off, our working relationships. If we are working full-time, then we are around those we work with for most of our waking hours. We are earning our keep together and hopefully growing and/or maintaining a successful business together - some of us are even dying together. Perhaps the military is a bit out of scope for this discussion, I'm not a military person but I have worked with many who have been and they seem to have protocols for dealing with communications down.

"...if what we do create isn't effective at achieving the goals of the business, then our time is wasted."

In fact in my own experience, it seems that the more risk to life and limb, the more we seem to be effective at communicating. These days, I'm a professional in software. For a while I had a career in a business where life and limb were on the line. The lives and limbs were our own and our teammates - in the live-sound business there's a lot that can go wrong. Heavy equipment, machinery, tools, electricity, high-decibels - its an environment where you've got to be on your toes or you may lose them. I've worked with a lot of professionals in the touring and local sound industry and I'll say that the best to work with were the most organized and effective at communicating to and coordinating a team. When a team is building an entire stage with roof, sound and lighting and has just enough time to get it done it's of utmost importance to keep everyone in sync.

In the software business, on the other hand, there is a tendency toward working alone and having long moments of deep concentration (to achieve "flow"). While this is an important thing to achieve, it would be ineffective nonetheless if we achieved flow in the wrong direction. We can create so much with software - however, if what we do create isn't effective at achieving the goals of the business, then our time is wasted. This is the essence of why we need to have effective communications within our organization - so that we all understand what we are working toward and how we are getting there.

Let's get personal...

The same can be said of our personal relationships. This is a different story, however it is closely related to effective communications because, after all its all about sharing information externally (exposing inner state). Think of the Actor Model as an example of how people communicate. In this programming paradigm, an actor is the basic element of a program (much like a class is in the OO paradigm). Actors have an internal state that is not visible to the outside world. The only way for two actors to share any information is to send messages to one another. Hmmm... this sounds a lot like the Actor Model was really a model of people. Reminds me of Conway's Law - which can be generalized to say that we model systems after our own communications methods. Let's reverse apply the Actor Model on ourselves and see how it applies to people.

"Keep verifying if the message was received properly until it has been."

We have our own internal thoughts and feelings. What we share with the outside world can only be expressed through a few interfaces. Those interfaces can be boiled down to Verbal, Non-verbal and Mixed. 

Non-verbal is the most primitive, but also the most immediate and effective - facial expressions, body language, tone, etc. But also, there are more rich forms of non-verbal such as paintings, graphics, drawings, music, etc. 

Verbal communications is more evolved and can be more expressive. This category includes speech and writing using language. 

Mixed is most evident during live conversation - there are words, body language, facial expressions, other visual queues, aural queues such as pitch of voice - it is also the most expressive. It's no wonder Scott Ambler echoes Alistair Cockburn's notion of Media Richness Theory in saying that in-person is the most effective method of communicating. It also takes a distraction-free environment.

"In general, richer mediums are more personal as they include nonverbal and verbal cues, body language, inflection, and gestures that signal a person's reaction to a message." - Media Richness Theory

So wait, what about personal? In our interpersonal communications, often we listen but not fully listen. Full listening comes with understanding to other's position. In order to do that, we need to send more messages to ACKso that our understanding is is a highly imperfect method. Without the visual queues - think text message, email, even on the phone (though it's leagues better) - we miss out on so much of the information to be had. Even then we can get to it via the inefficient methods, it will just a bit longer. Sometimes that's ok. Sometimes (often?) the instant reaction we have isn't the message we should send. Visual queues from the receiver may be enough to indicate the need to proceed or to stop and verify that the message was received. This sounds a lot like how tcp works doesn't it? Keep verifying if the message was received properly until it has been.

This topic runs so deep. For great read on the topic of effective communication check out People Skills by Robert Bolton, Ph. D., he's done a lot of work in the field of improving communications in the workplace and in personal relationships. In the book he outlays 4 steps to progress through to better communication skills - (resolving conflict being the primary goal), however there are so many insights to be had in this book that make it so worthwhile to read.

What next?

What's next is to look at this issue in a general sense so that we can move beyond specific tools that are either in-fad or have outlived their usefulness. The most important thing we can do is to recognize the basics and find the tools that fit our needs best. Whiteboard only works when everyone can be in-person...and once it's erased it's gone. This is one example where technology may live up to it's whiteboards offer opportunity where traditional one's fall short. Got distributed teams? Need to persist? And sure that's all great and fine that the tech is available, but it will have shortcomings and there will be barriers to entry (cost for one, culture another).

The main takeaway here is to choose your tools based on need and ensure that they fulfill enough needs without getting in the way too much - and the need is clear, concise, appropriate communications that go out to the right people and are received with ACK.

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