15 October, 2019
This article suggests a framework for how to become a much more effective team member through the use of communication. The effect of this should be that you are more highly valued by your co-workers and boss. The framework builds upon Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in which the bottom layers are more fundamental and themes are more complex the higher you go.
The article is intended to be a reference of different tools that I have seen used effectively. While these tools are applicable to any group working context, they are particularly needed and effective in remote working environments.
When operating in a remote work context, communication is the key driver behind productivity, efficiency and client/team happiness. Good communication skills make you seem much more smart and capable, while poor communication skills can turn a genius into a low output and frustrating partner to work with.
I believe I have well-tested experience on this topic after heading up a software development centre in India which reported to Germany, USA and Australia, coupled with experience using outsourced software development teams in countries like India and the Philippines.
Originally presented toCovalense Global
The tools are organised as below:
Some people in the world have perfect memories, the vast majority do not. Having a perfect memory is almost like a superpower, think Mike in the tv show 'Suits'.
If you make notes then you can also have a perfect memory.
Everyone has a unique experience that brought them up to the point of their conversation with you. What was theirs like?
Did they just come out of 2 hours of traffic getting into the office?
Did one of their customers just blow up at them for an issue with the product?
Have they had issues in their personal life?
Are they in a different timezone and are answering your questions at 2am?
Sometimes people need time to unravel the thoughts in their head. Let the other person finish what they have to say until it is your turn. There are a few advantages to this:
If you don't have complete clarity, you probably don't fully understand what is being asked of you yet. The easiest way to get this clarity is to ask. Ask good questions is a strong indicator of intelligence and listening skills.
Short text messages
Report with headings
Face to face > Video call > Audio call > Text messaging
Conversations like this happen all the time:
Client: "When will Task A be ready?"
Staff: "I am working on Task B actually, this is an important task that needs to be completed."
If the client needs to know when Task A will be ready, did the answer help them? This will cause huge frustration and a feeling that you don't understand simple questions. Focus on what the other person is actually asking you before giving an answer.
A better answer to the above question may be: "Task A is currently on hold but we are aiming to finish it by end of day tomorrow. This is because we identified a major risk of system shutdown if we didn't resolve an issue with Task B. We anticipate resolving Task B in 2 hours. If we continue with Task A after this issue is resolved then it should be ready tomorrow."
Not just for meetings. Define what you want to achieve in a discussion and how you want to get there. Defining a clear path will help the audience understand as you speak.
"Hi Bill. I wanted to have a chat with you about Customer A. The reason I am bringing this up is because I believe there is a high risk of them leaving us if we don't take action. I'd like to breakdown with you the causes of how we got here and how I think we can win them back. Do you have 15 mins to discuss?"
Beginning a discussion in this way let's Bill (the audience) know several key things:
Having a visual representation of what you are communicating will make you a much better communicator. Visuals are great at simplifying complexity, keeping your audience on track with what you are explaining and generally can trasnfer understanding much faster than speech.
If you are having trouble creating your own visuals then try an image search. Many concepts already have diagrams created which you can adapt for your particular context.
Have you ever spoken with someone and they blurt out a continuous string of different ideas and concepts? It can be difficult to know what are the key points to focus on and at what stage the conversation has progressed to. Landmarks and Schemas help the audience follow your train of thought.
A landmark communication is clearly defining a core point of your message. Think of it a bit like a street sign, menu heading, map marker or gaming savepoint. Using landmarks during a conversation will allow the audience to keep track of your logic.
To use a landmark in writing you could create a heading which is bold and starts new a paragram after it (similar to what I have done in this guide).
To use a landmark in speech you can say things like: "I will now move onto topic ____", "Did anyone have questions on ____ before I move on to ____?".
A good way to set up landmarks is to present an agenda before you speak or even just highlight the main topics you want to cover before you start talking e.g. "Thanks for joining me for this meeting on customer support. What I want to cover in this session is how we accept customer queries, how we measure customer support success and whether we need to increase our team size."
Schemas on the other hand are pre-existing knowledge that your audience has. A good way to illustrate this is explaining what a grapefruit is.
One approach is to say that a grapefruit has red flesh with a firm, orange skin. It is shaped as a sphere with a diameter of about 12cm.
Another approach is to use a schema to leverage existing knowledge. A grapefruit is just like an orange but slightly bigger and with red flesh.
By using an orange as the starting point you don't need to describe the size, taste, skin type and general appearance in as much detail.
Get help from your co-workers to practise before explaining something to your client. If you don't have co-workers then look into Rubber Duck Programming
Talking too fast can make you sound smarter in the short term but over time people will get frustrated and turn to others for explanations. This applies to certain people more than others but if you know that you tend to speak more quickly, try to insert pauses more deliberately.
Good places to pause in your speech are:
While working with your customer it may be difficult to know if they are following along and understanding.
A good way to approach this is to ask, "Did that make sense?". Try not to challenge them on if they have understood.
Long sentences suck. Long sentences are normally written when you are first putting together what you need to say and are therefore the first version of your argument which will always be better after revision and so breaking up a long sentence will be much easier for the audience to follow and get your point across more easily. See below how you could break up this block of text.
It is more valuable to let the audience feel dignified and respected than to be right. If they are making an argument that you believe in incorrect, try to work out why they have that point of view. It may be that you just don't understand what they mean or that they have a particular assumption that undermines the rest of their perspective. Try asking questions to understand their reasoning before casting a judgement.
On the other side, the saying that 'the customer is always right' is not true or helpful in technical work. Letting your client have an opinion or perspective on your work that is incorrect will cause issues as the project continues. The way to handle a client being wrong is:
Having well thought out reasons that help change the customer's mind is one of the most valuable tools you have
If there is a gap in understanding, try to explain in different ways. Use words like "I guess another way I think about this problem is like..."
While teaching I would often need to explain the same concept in several different ways before the whole class understood. Some would understand from a diagram I presented, others after I explained for a few minutes and others again would need something special.
In one class I was explaining how a request works over the internet. I ended up using the students to put together an impromptu threatre-style re-enactment of the concept. At the end of the class one of my students pulled my aside and said how happy they were that I explained it in that way. They had been struggling to understand that concept and only gained clarity after seeing it as a theatre-style re-enactment.
While in most cases, especially when dealing in professional settings, a wildly creative approach is inappropriate, there are still opportunities to get creative. Try out new approaches sometimes and see how people react.
Let your client or co-workers know when they have provided you with really good or clear guidance. You are not the only one that benefits from constructive feedback.
Most of the time a client will be unsure if a remote team understands what they are asking for and do not know how to improve. Giving this feedback can be really helpful. One way to do this is with, "These user stories were really helpful for x and y reasons."
Asking "How are you?" is a core part of communication in Australian culture. Answering this appropriately helps build comfort and rapport. Ignoring the question or answering the wrong way can make you seem robotic or overly personal. Don't be a robot, robots are replaceable. Also don't overshare, there still needs to be some adherance to professional communication standards.
The correct way to answer this question in an Australian context is either "Good." or "Good, + short reason why". It is better to keep your response to one sentence and only elaborate if they ask.
Try not to jump into work talk before greeting the person. Some tips for greeting are to consider:
People are generally bad at remembering names. It gets harder when you are working with someone from a different culture as the names will be very unfamiliar. If people get your name wrong or find it hard to remember, here are a few things you can do:
You can't always convince someone to change their opinion that you view as incorrect. There are times when you will have tried everything you can but are unable to resolve a disagreement. There are a few things you can do here:
If the wifi connection is bad then its rarely worth having a call. Sending text messages is better until you can restore a decent connection.
If you have had success communicating an idea in a particular way, reuse that way! These could be pictures, diagrams, images or past discussions for example.
People will always be upset if they receive negative news that they weren't expecting. Communcating unexpected bad news is one of the toughest things you can do. To reduce the risk of this happening you can prepare by warning the client or co-worker of potential issues or risks. If they know that a certain bad event is a possibility, they will be more prepared to accept it if it occurs.
In the case of severe breakdown of communications and dissatisfaction, my rule is to escalate personal connection. What I mean is to move to a medium of communication that is more personal. For example:
If you have feedback, please send to jcerexhe [at] gmail.com