#164 - Make Communication Easier By Trying On The Other's Communication Style
Plus: Coaching questions; Remote means more communications less often; Don't be a knowledge bottleneck; Make a team that will outlast you; Pitching and Getting Commmitment
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When I first started managing, I was baffled by what I interpreted at the time as people's baffling inattention to documents I prepared and emails I sent. I'd routinely have to repeat myself, or break down and talk with them (not so straightforward in a distributed team across many timezones). I was pretty grumpy about that, because as far as I was concerned it meant going to extra effort to sort out misunderstandings, or gaps in their knowledge of things I had already written, which was clearly their fault.
But the fact is, effective communication is the job of the person who's trying to communicate something, not the person at the receiving end. With time and a bit more attention to how I and others communicated, I got much better at this, and I end up coaching others through this same sort of issue all the time.
Academia Has a Particular Communication Style, And We're Pretty Used To It
Sure, "moreover" and "hitherto" are not words that the general public use a lot, but vocabulary isn't what I mean here.
Our presentations, our papers, our arguments, have a pretty distinctive style that's hard to notice from the inside. They are extremely long, backed with tonnes of supporting evidence, delivered all at once, with everything the consumer could need to pick over and ponder at their leisure. It tends to be resolutely concrete and factual, with occasional use of dense supporting diagrams or figures.
We describe this as "rigorous", which it is in a sense, but it's mostly just a set of conventions. These choices date from early use of printed journals, when interactive communications between practitioners was difficult, where figures were hard and expensive to print, and where journal articles had to serve two different purposes: to both convey a new finding and be self contained enough for others to decide whether to accept it and/or how to build on it.
And that set of conventions tends to then shape how communications happens even outside of that context - how grant proposals are written, how presentations are given, how teaching is done.
Common Communication Style Makes Mutual Understanding Easier
There's nothing at all wrong with this. Having a common, well-established style for communication has the benefit of adopting a standard in any other context.
Within academia, amongst other things makes communications go a little faster. People know what to expect in the structure of the communication, which makes it easier for to process the content of the communication.
There's A Wide Range Of Communications Styles
In the broader world, with non-academic stakeholders, things are a lot more varied. People have lots of different ways they communicate. Some will specialize in terse bullet-pointed emails; others make a lot of quick phone calls; some favour heavily visual communication ("painted" in words or pictures); others are heavily analogy-based; some use the lens of specific individuals and impacts on them; some are future-looking; others are concrete and present-based. And yes, some love the long-form fact-heavy documents. People tend to default to one or two approaches at any given time, and are most comfortable there.
None of styles these are superior or inferior to others; they're just different. One might be more effective for a certain purpose and/or certain audience than the other; the next situation you're in might benefit from another. It's handy to build a level of comfort with using various approaches. You don't have to be brilliant at them — indeed, you'll find yourself relying most heavily on just a couple at any given point in your career, and that's fine. But the rest are also good tools to have in your communications toolbox.
Here's an easy way to start getting practice with them while helping bridge some communications gaps you see in your day-to-day work. It doesn't take long, is easy to get started with gradually, and will both expand your toolbox and improve work relationships.
Pay Attention To People's Communication Styles, And Echo Them Back
Like so many of the things we discuss here, this isn't rocket surgery. It's a matter of paying attention to context, making judicious choices of actions based on that context, and evaluating the results.
If there are people — peers, leadership, team members, other stakeholders — who you find you're having a hard time communicating with, try incorporating their communication approach into how you communicate with them.
That might mean initiating a quick call, or using short terse emails, or using more imagery (verbal or visual). It might mean echoing the vocabulary they use, or leaning more people-focussed when you would default to fact-focussed.
You don't need to radically change how you communicate; but do to try incorporate what they do in small doses.
We can think of this as being similar obeying the in-house formatting and content guidelines when submitting a paper to a journal or a grant to a funder. It's a matter of putting the content into the form and structure that the recipient is expecting, so they can process it more readily. Or deciding how much level of detail to go into based on a persons expertise and experience.
Making some effort to communicate with someone in the way they naturally communicate is just a small, kind, generous act that will make communication between the two of you a little easier. It'll also help you further develop your communication toolkit.
Be Wary Of "Personality Types"
There's a lot of material out there tying communication style to "personality types" or personality traits. Several are more explicitly based on communications behaviours. Some seem better and more effective than others.
I'm unconvinced that any are worthwhile.
Now, if you've used one of approaches these before and it's been helpful for you, then by all means ignore this section and keep doing what's been working. I'm not here to tell you to end a practice that's been useful. Keep doing the thing.
I have seen some failure modes of these approaches though.
They tend to put people in boxes, and then assume a bunch of other, often unrelated things about the person based on the label on that box.
Even when the systems explicitly state otherwise, people tend to assume that people stay in the same box for life. Once you've labelled someone as a given "type", there's a lot of mental inertia to overcome to change that.
People are dynamic, shape-shifting critters. Our behaviour will bounce around depending on the topic, the people involved, and what else is going on in our day that day. Models that can accommodate that have a hard time retaining any predictive power.
So my preferred approach here is resolutely empirical. Just lean somewhat into doing what they're doing when they've communicated recently on this sort of topic, and don't worry too much about inferring what that means about their personality or what they're "really like". All we're trying to do is communicate better with them, not gain insight into the deepest core of their being.
Keep Track Of Communications Effectiveness
So my recommendation when dealing with a colleague who you have communications challenges with — you frequently have to repeat something you've said, messages somehow get mangled by the time they repeat them, or they just don't seem to be getting your message at all — is this:
Take careful note of the communication challenges, and examples of when they've arisen
Try communicating with them on this topic in ways you see them communicating on similar topics
Over time, see if the communication starts to improve; track what works.
Note that this doesn't remove disagreements or resolve personality conflicts. But if you can improve communications, that can maybe help the two of you share perspective better on the substantive matters of disagreement. Or it can help keep a communications channel clear and open so the conflicts can be managed.
A Lot Of Other Communication Tips Are Special Cases Of This One
You'll often see, for instance, tips about communicating with busy people by putting the "bottom line up front": starting with the conclusion, and only then filling in a curated small number of supporting arguments or facts. (This is great general advice, by the way). Those busy people are disproportionately the people who communicate that way themselves - short, succinct, focussing on the main point and only including supporting material that’s absolutely necessary.
And now, on to the roundup!
Advanced Coaching Questions - Paloma Medina
Coaching is a very useful set of techniques for helping team members (or people you’re mentoring) grow in directions they want to grow. It can happen in an ad-hoc way, or systematically over time during one-on-ones. It doesn’t replace feedback, which is used for small nudges; this is a more involved practice that happens over time, as for professional growth or skills development.
Medina has a useful set of questions for helping people through a growth or transition, broken into stages:
Stage 1: When there’s complete disagreement on the feedback (or for any other reason they are not ready to change)
Stage 2: If they’re considering the feedback, but are unsure, or are not yet 100% ready to commit to change
Stage 3: When they’re ready for action but need confidence or motivation
Stage 4: When they’ve been taking action and you want to maintain their momentum and confidence
There’s something a lot of teams are still wrestling with that adds a complication to my advice at the start of this issue to try echoing communication styles.
Many teams are still evolving norms around remote and hybrid work, and trying to figure out how to make that work the best for them. And communications is a huge part of making this work.
Balter’s recommendations here are lined up with what I’ve seen work - the more remote or asynchronous the team is, the more (in aggregate) explicit communication there has to be, but the nature changes. Balter recommends:
Choose the right medium for the message
Write clearly, concisely, and comprehensively
Record videos with empathy, enthusiasm, and engagement
Communicate proactively, regularly, and asynchronously
The Knowledge Bottleneck I used to be - Jens Rantil
Building a Personal Firm...or an Institution - David C Baker
It is so easy for this to happen, especially with those of us who are used to being experts. This is even more likely to happen if a team has grown up around us.
We don’t mean to be knowledge bottlenecks, it’s not like we’re hoarding knowledge intentionally, but especially as our teams get busy it’s just easier for us to be the one who knows the things. “Just ask Jonathan, he knows [how to do x]/[who to contact in finance about Y]/….” Or, even more perniciously, “it’s faster if I do this”.
This stunts our growth, because it means instead of learning knew skills we’re constantly doing the same stuff. It stunts our team members, who don’t get a chance to learn new things or interact with the broader organization. It holds back the team because now there’s a bottleneck and a single point of failure.
Rantil summarizes what he learned:
Optimizing getting task done quickly is only a short-term solution
Even if you’re not slowing tasks down), you can still be a bottleneck in terms of knowledge & throughput.
Being a knowledge bottleneck means you are a throughput bottleneck.
Moving out of being a knowledge silo can be hard.
Optimising for a team is the most long-term sustainable thing to do for you, for your team, and for your company.
In #153 and #154 we had a number of small incremental suggestions for getting out from under this - finding small ways to work on the team, not just in the team and taking every-day opportunities to grow individual team members.
Baker, a famous adviser for consultants, gives similar advice in the context of a small consultancy. In such a situation, there’s an argument to be made for having a team be, basically, (say) “Jonathan Dursi, and Helpers”; the alternative is to create an institution which you simply happen to be the person in charge at the moment.
Our job as managers and leaders is to aim for the second — to create an institution that will outlast our leadership. We want that for our team, so it can function well and individual team members can grow; we want it for us, so that we can take vacations or promotions. Our job is to slowly make ourselves less and less necessary.
Managing Within Organizations
6 Pitching Techniques to Use When Budgets Are Tight - Allison Shapira, HBR,
Sometimes I slip and say that in academia, we were never taught how to communicate persuasively. That’s not really true - our papers and presentations were designed to persuade people to accept your new finding or method; if we got some grant-writing experience, hopefully we learned a little bit about how to show how a proposal met a funders very broad aims and so it should be considered for funding this year.
But anything more specific or more urgent than that we typically didn’t get a lot of tutoring in. And that holds us back. We’re typically pretty ambitious, and we see better ways of doing things. But making those changes and accomplishing what we see can be accomplished, requires getting people on board to make real investments of time, effort, or money.
Shapira provides six steps to go through:
Start with stakeholder analysis [know what matters to the people you’re asking something of, and the people that matter to them]
Get crystal clear about the benefits of what you’re pitching
Connect with a sense of timeliness or urgency [“why now, and not next year?”]
Look for social proof [who else is doing this?]
Anticipate objections [AI tools can help with this sometimes, if we’re too caught up in why something is Clearly The Right Thing To Do]
Provide a clear next step
That last item is so crucial and so easily overlooked. There’s nothing more discouraging then getting some agreement in principle but then nothing happens because it wasn’t someone’s responsibility to take action afterwards.
Mitchell talks about getting commitment from teams for product work, which is more subtle in a lot of ways than simply asking for money for some effort, but follows a similar path. Here, because it’s more of an ongoing effort than a single pitch, working with relevant people becomes very powerful:
Get the priority straight by collaborating [discover the priority by talking to and working with the relevant stakeholders]
Collaborate to find an owner [finding a champion or someone to do the work is can be key! She also gives a good example of splitting things up into multiple owners so work can progress independently]
Make the benefits clear
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox, or schedule a quick Manager, Ph.D. reader input call.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,