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This chapter is from the book

Collaborative Conversations

If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If something is communicated and nobody hears it or reads it, was it actually communicated? Philosophy aside, from this point forward, assume that at least two parties are required for any form of communication to exist.

The next chapter delves more deeply into collaboration. For now, however, the focus is on collaboration that occurs during a conversation. In oral communication, when speakers and listeners come together, there are increasingly rich levels of collaboration.

When speakers and listeners are brought together, there must be a match between speaking strategy and listening strategy for a productive interaction to occur. When a mismatch occurs between the level of collaboration desired by speaker and listeners, speakers and listeners tend to get frustrated.

In any given combination of speaker/listeners, the maturity of collaborative communication often aligns with one of the four levels depicted in Figure 4.6:

  • Level 1: Speech: A speaker is preaching and/or motivating the listeners, who are often a mixture of passive and active listeners.
  • Level 2: Facilitated Discussion: The speaker takes on more of a facilitation role, engaging listeners to contribute to the topic being discussed.
  • Level 3: Conversation: At this level, the speaker and listeners engage in a dialogue, where speaker/listener roles are swapped continuously. The originating speaker role may set the tone and direction, after which others involved in the conversation steer its direction.
  • Level 4: Collaborative Interaction: At level 4, complete collaboration occurs between members of the group. The speaker/listener roles swap out frequently and swiftly. Members of the group work together toward a common goal (solving a problem, discussing an issue, resolving a need, and so on). At this level, the group takes on its own identity.
Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 Collaborative communication levels

Collaborative interaction is a desirable place for a project team to get to and remain at. When a project team reaches this level, members tend to work together to fulfill each other's communication needs. At this level, communication is leveraged as a tool to advance the progress of a project. When a communication block is reached, other members of the team may step in to ensure that progress is continued.

In improvisational theater, a group of performers work together to create a cohesive (and usually humorous) entertainment piece without a script. Television shows such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Curb Your Enthusiasm have showcased improvisational performers. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, a rough sketch of a story idea is presented to the actors, who create the story together in front of rolling cameras rather than reading lines from a script. The pressure of this real-time collaboration draws the best possible work out of each contributor. On Whose Line Is It Anyway? the performers have the added pressure of creating entertaining content in front of a live audience.

One of the greatest challenges of "improv" (as this is commonly called), is the live collaboration that occurs between multiple performers. All members of an improv team know how to capitalize on each other's strengths and overcome each other's weaknesses. A goal of an improv troupe is to keep communication flowing with no dead air.

Popular "improv" practices can help foster better communication on teams, such as the following:

  • Keep it flowing: Improv masters are skillful at keeping communication flowing, and team members all work together to make the "scene" a success. If one person dominates at the expense of others, the group fails. If one person falters, others will jump in to keep things going.
  • Say "Yes, and...": By responding to a teammate's contribution with "Yes, and..." you are make a commitment to adding to what has already been offered. This approach maintains cohesion by committing to build upon what was started. It also shifts the burden of enhancing the overall contribution.

    Mary

    I believe customers will want a user interface that is attractive and is easy to use.

    Fred

    Yes, and...

    After the "and," Fred adds new information. The person who says, "Yes, and..." is expected to contribute new content, not just restate or transform what was already said.

    Fred

    Yes, and the screen should be clean with few widgets, options, and displayed content.

    Jane

    Yes, and the system should be fast, too. New windows should pop up within just a second or two from the time they are requested.

    David

    Yes, and... [Continues until the group runs out of steam.]

  • Avoid blocking: Blocking is the opposite of "Yes, and..." Expressing a negative reaction to the previous contribution can stop the conversation flow dead in its tracks. It may be simply saying, "No," or it could be ignoring the conversation and shifting to a completely different subject. A high D (dominator) is likely to block when in disagreement with an idea that is being cultivated.

    Mary

    I believe customers will want a user interface that is attractive and easy to use.

    Pat

    No, actually customers will want a feature-rich application with a lot of information and user-configurable capabilities.

    OR

    Pat

    I'm not that concerned about the user interface; it's the speed of the application that I'm worried about.

  • Avoid questions: Asking questions could be perceived as a "punt," which shifts the burden to someone else. This is a common tactic of a high C (critical thinker), who may believe that critical questions are contributing to the team. Rather, they demonstrate that the questioner doesn't want to play the game and is quick to shift the "hot potato" to someone else.

    Mary

    I believe customers will want a user interface that is attractive and is easy to use.

    Derek

    Are you familiar with the corporate user interface style guide and the standard UI templates?

    OR

    Derek

    How do you define "easy to use?"

    Notice how Derek's questions push the burden immediately back to Mary. This places responsibility on Mary to keep the conversation flowing, and Derek plays a minor role in the overall results of the group, even though Derek probably feels that his inquisitive style is helping.

  • Include other team members: Help draw in other team members who are not contributing by providing information they can build on. This requires an awareness of skills and interests of those team members. Notice the collaborative helpful tone of Mary and David's exchange:

    Mary

    I believe customers will want a user interface that is attractive and is easy to use. David, I remember that the user interfaces you developed on other projects were well accepted by your users. How can we achieve the same success on this project?

    David

    Well, I should conduct a focus group with key target users. Also Derek is a pro at screen layouts. We'll want to get him involved.

  • Be Socratic: The great teacher and philosopher Socrates devised a teaching technique that broke from the conventions of his time. Rather than blurt knowledge, he posed a series of questions to his students. This allowed the students to navigate their own path of understanding and learning. These questions allow a speaker to clarify and qualify what is being said.

    Note that asking questions is a "no no" in the improv world because it is seen as deflecting involvement. A Socratic series of questions, however, encourages active involvement by the questioner. As a facilitation technique, it can keep people on task and help them avoid getting off track from the goals of the communication session. With this technique, the facilitator is not questioning what is being said. Rather, the facilitator is asking questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate, enhance, and clarify what is being said.

    Examples of helpful Socratic questions:

    • What makes you say that?
    • Can you describe an example of what you're talking about?
    • How does this align with what others have been saying?
    • How does this differ from what others have been saying?
    • Are there other ways to ask what you are asking?

    And a few metaquestions (questions about the question itself):

    • Did the way you worded the question get the response you expected?
    • Is that a good question to be asking?
    • Why is what you are saying important to the project?
  • Be even more Socratic: Another technique often attributed to Socrates is to feign ignorance—to pretend to have no knowledge of something you are fully knowledgeable about. Listen in on the following conversation:

    Fred

    Would you like me to explain the steps involved in underwriting an insurance policy?

    Jane

    [Having spent the past 20 years as an insurance underwriter and holding various certifications as a certified underwriter, bites her tongue, feigns curiosity and interest, and says...] Yes, please tell us about it.

Feigning ignorance can be difficult for those who are knowledgeable on a subject. Their egos entice them to let everyone know how smart they are. By swallowing pride and feigning ignorance, though, there is a great opportunity to augment their knowledge with another's perspective.

In the preceding scenario, if Jane had not allowed Fred to continue, she might have lost the opportunity to either validate what she knows or add to her knowledge of the subject.

The Power of Shutting Up

When used properly, silence can be a powerful communication tool. Proper use of silence includes appropriate choice of supporting eye contact and other body language.

In this scenario, Fred is undecided about whether to include a certain feature in the scope of the system. Jane (who is likely a high D and/or a high I) feels that it's necessary to say something:

Fred

I can't quite decide whether that feature is important and should be included in the scope of the system.

Jane

I think it's quite important. I'd include it if I were you.

OR

Okay, what can I do to help you decide?

OR

When will you decide?

If instead Jane had said nothing, she could have urged Fred to come to a decision. If Jane looked Fred in the eyes and leaned forward, she would silently be saying, "Take your time, Fred, I'll wait for you to think about it and come to a decision."

If Fred happens to be a high C, he is unlikely to make a snap decision and will want time to think about the implications of his decision before announcing it. By exercising restraint and using silence with appropriate body language, Jane allowed Fred to make a more informed, well-thought-out decision.

Using silence as a tool can be difficult for high D's and high I's. Silence can drive these people nutty, and they'll likely try to fill it with sound.

Communication Latency

In 1860, a message crossed the United States from coast to coast in ten days via Pony Express. Today, it's possible for an email message to make the same journey in less than a second.

This doesn't mean, however, that email is the definitive communication speed test benchmark. Email has its place but does not guarantee efficiency or speed. You probably have messages in your email inbox from more than ten days ago that were overlooked or not read. If, however, someone rode up alongside you on a horse and handed you a letter that had been in transit for the past ten days, there's a good chance that you'd drop whatever you're doing to read it.

Communication latency refers to the delay that occurs from the time something is communicated until the time it is received and processed. A common goal of an agile project is to reduce communication latency. Real-time interactions can keep a project moving forward, whereas delays can have a compounding detrimental impact to the project. Figure 4.7 depicts commonly used communication tactics, shown with increasing amounts of latency (or delay) from when the sender sends the message and the recipient receives the message.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 Increasing communication latency

As an example, receiving the message does not mean that it arrived in the recipient's inbox. The communication transaction is complete when the recipient reads and understands what was communicated. It's ironic that some of the more popular modern tactics actually introduce the most latency.

The more time that passes from the sending of information and the processing of that information, the greater the risk the information will be misunderstood, ignored, or misused. Notably, the context that was in existence at the time something is communicated will likely have changed as more time passes. This causes information to be processed out of context, which can lead to misinterpretation.

Ideally, all project communication would occur live and in real time. Behaviorally, real-time conversations are fun and desirable for a high I (influencer); at the same time they can be exhausting and undesirable to a high C (critical thinker). When Mary asks Derek to do some research on a certain business requirement and to let her know what he finds out, his follow-up actions will depend on his behavioral tendencies.

Because Derek is a high DI, he may likely do a cursory job of researching (or try to delegate it) and will report what he learns back to Mary in person. Derek is likely to report back to Mary within hours so he can get the to-do item off his list.

When Derek tells Mary what he has learned, he will consider his task complete. If Mary were to ask Derek to write up what he discussed, Derek is likely to be frustrated or annoyed.

If Mary had asked Carl instead, she would have experienced a different response because Carl is a high C. Carl is likely to take his time doing a thorough job of researching the problem. When he has researched to his satisfaction, he will likely write up the information and send it to Mary in an email message. It's highly unlikely that Carl will call Mary or see her in person to discuss what he learned. After Carl clicked "send" he considered his task complete. If the email server crashed and the message never made it to Mary, Carl would likely have never pursued making sure Mary received and understood the information.

The contrast between Derek's and Carl's behavior is important. Carl probably did a much more thorough and accurate job of addressing Mary's needs. However, the delay in getting the information to Mary could have potentially caused other delays. Additionally, if Mary never received (or noticed) the reply, Carl's work was pointless.

On the other hand, Derek handled the request in a timely manner, but the quality of his research was probably much poorer than what Carl produced.

In either case, it's productive for all team members to maintain awareness of communication latency and to work to minimize delays in communication threads.

We the People...

Here's a quick grammar lesson:

  • First-person singular: "I..."
  • Second-person singular: "You..." Third-person singular: "He/she..."
  • First-person plural: "We..." Second-person plural: "You..."
  • Third-person plural: "They..."

Regardless of your intent, when you choose to speak in first-person versus third-person, and singular versus plural, others' perception of you will likely be affected by what they hear. Generally:

  • Those who use first-person singular can be perceived as arrogant and boring. Others' eyes may glaze over as you continually say, "I this," and "I that." That doesn't mean you mustn't ever talk about yourself. However, it's a good idea to monitor your "me" speak and be cognoscente of a lack of empathy for your listeners.
  • Those who use second-person can be perceived as nagging or preaching. Listeners tend to get defensive and raise their guard when they hear, "You this," and "You that." The "You" speaker may also be seen as arrogant, which is often a turn off to listeners.
  • Those who frequently speak in the third-person may be viewed as gossips. When you choose to talk about others, be aware that any hint of judgment or criticism could cause you to be labeled as a critic and a gossip. People may be less inclined to be open with you to avoid being judged or criticized by you.
  • The use of first-person plural is a great way to get collective buy-in for whatever you have to say. When you say "we," others see you as part of the team, a member of the family, someone who has the same skin in the game that they do. Not only can this tactic help you avoid alienation, it can encourage others to be more open with you.
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