How to be a Considerate Communicator
By Ray Newal, Managing Director of Techstars Bangalore Accelerator
The Metaphor of the Traffic Light
On a recent bike ride, while passing through a four-way intersection, a thought occurred to me regarding the role of contracts and signaling systems in interdependent situations. Without traffic lights, speed limits, and a contract between drivers to obey the traffic laws, cars would crash into each other a lot more than they do. Bike riders like myself would never stand a chance. The combination of signaling systems and contracts allow us to bring order to chaos. In the case of traffic, these systems help us get from point A to point B in one piece.
But what happens when the signals and associated contracts are no longer relevant to our behaviors, or can’t keep pace with the magnitude of interdependencies? Technology has a way of impacting human behaviors and sometimes making them obsolete. When behaviors change, we need new ways to manage them. Prior to traffic signals, cars and carriages were sufficiently sparse and slow enough to allow the driver (or rider) to visually assess the situation at an intersection and act accordingly. As cars became cheaper and faster, and roads became more highly trafficked, the visual approach stopped working, leading to the advent of traffic signals and road signs.
While communications started out as a simple interdependency, it too has become increasingly complex.
The Telephone and the Mailbox
Here’s a previous, universally accepted communications contract: the sender would dial or write when they had something to say, and the recipient would pick up or respond when they recognized an incoming call or a letter in the mail. This contract and signalling system worked very well when communications required us to be physically proximate to the telephone or letterbox in order to receive calls or letters. It worked because the expectations of the caller or sender were defined by the chance that the receiver would be by their phone, or in the case of letters, that the mail would probably arrive—at some point. It was manageable and even fun for the recipient to get phone calls after dinner, or check the letterbox on the way home from work. On the off chance that the phone rang, or a letter was discovered in the letterbox, these communications received the full attention of the recipient—even a telemarketing call may have been received with pleasure!
Our Relentless, Wireless World
In a wireless world with devices always readily available in our pockets or purses, we find ourselves in dire need a of a better contract and signalling system. Even though our devices never leave our sides, the device in your pocket now works harder for the sender, making sure those competing calls and messages get heard as soon as they arrive. Instead of making life easier, mobile and internet communication has conspired to create a feeling of obligation on the recipient side. The result? We feel like we have to be perpetually responsive to communications, regardless of whether we are focused at work, exercising at the gym, or spending quality time with loved ones.
Wireless technology, communications software, and mobile telephony have gradually increased the volume and frequency of communications, making us ubiquitously accessible, and creating a perceived obligation of round-the-clock responsiveness because we have yet to develop any new contracts or systems to deal with this increasingly complex interdependency. Just as there are potentially fatal consequences of traffic flowing without mutual acceptance of traffic signals and rules, there are also significant consequences of communications traffic flowing without a system that respects our ability to receive those communications with mental availability, and attention.
With the traffic light stuck on green, the flow of communications never stops, and our lack of attention has become the unfortunate by-product. In work and life, events that receive our full and undivided attention are rare and infrequent. Indeed we’ve stopped being present for much outside of what happens on the device in our pocket.
A New Contract for Communication
In the absence of any better signalling system for our digital communication, we need to develop a new contract for communication that is less reliant on the recipient to manage their accessibility. Considerate communication requires us to be conscious and empathetic of the recipient’s attention by selecting how and when we communicate with them. By considering the recipient, we also optimize the receptive value of what is being communicated, meaning we get the responses we need when we need them.
Here are some of my ideas on things we can do to be Considerate Communicators. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!
Skip the cc
Let’s all agree to avoid copying each other on emails. I get it, copying is to ensure everyone relevant to a given subject is in the loop. Slack is a better tool for this: it’s a great repository for FYI’s, group discussions, and media pertinent to a topic. Instead of using email to keep everyone in the loop, let’s use email to send things to people who need to receive and respond to that specific subject.
Set email priorities
In email, there are things I need to respond to ASAP, and there are things I need to look at within the next day or two. For anything else, we shouldn’t be using email. Let’s use the tools that come in just about every email system these days to mark priorities, so that no one misses a message that needs to be seen and responded to within the next day. Everything else will get a response within 48 hours. If it doesn’t require a response it won’t be sent as an email, it will go to Slack.
When something needs to be seen and acted on NOW, there are tons of tools that do a good job of grabbing someone’s attention. At Techstars, we use Voxer for truly urgent communications. You could also use messengers like Whatsapp, Facebook, Telegram, Slack DM, etc.—whatever works for your company, as long as you set expectations around that particular platform. Let’s use these sparingly, because very rarely does anything actually need to be responded to right away. Let’s not use calls unless it’s an absolute emergency. Unscheduled calls should fall within the domain of one’s friends and family members.
Let’s move complex multi-angled discussions to the place that complexity is best managed: scheduled synchronous communication. This can be Skype, Hangouts, phone calls, or a good old coffee meeting. Whether these are one-on-one or involve a group, these discussions are always best handled in real-time. But even if it only requires a one-on-one conversation, let’s remember to respect each other’s time by scheduling the conversation. An IM chat can also become an easy entry point into a synchronous voice or video discussion, if both parties agree to it.
Respect the time block
Let’s honor and respect each other’s time blocks. Short of having a tool to manage our mutual awareness of each other’s time blocks, let’s just agree to not send work communication outside of the workday that requires an immediate response, unless it’s an urgent/crisis situation. Every workplace has its own definition of what this means, so feel free to interpret the word ‘urgent’ in a way that suits your environment. If you’re working across time zones, respect the clever default DND in slack, or build this into your expected response times for email and other modes of communication.
Let’s use Slack (non-DM and general channels) as a way to inform everyone. This means we have to stop using these channels as if they were continuous Whatsapp conversations, and instead add context to discussions so that those coming in later (that day, week, or year) can make sense of what is being shared.
A World With More Intentional, Better Communications
If we start becoming more intentional about being considerate communicators within our teams and with our friends and family, we will start to see some of the principles spread externally. It won’t happen immediately, but eventually our inboxes will be lighter, our Slack channels will be richer with context and information, coming back from vacation won’t be so daunting, and quite possibly, we’ll look forward to answering our phones again.
How do you keep your inbox lean and your startup team in sync? Share your favorite tips and tricks in the comments!