On being pro-conversation

We spend important chunks of our weekdays, and sometimes of our weekends, communicating be it with our clients, bosses, colleagues, teams or friends. The lines separating private and professional life are often blurry and the “exact” amount of time we spend on different communication channels or applications are mostly unknown. We all know the impact smart phones, tablets or portable computers have on our daily life. We far to often accept the side effects without giving to much of a thought, even less caring about their probable importance.

You may see the devil in these tools and in the way we work with them, as you have to be available at all times (at least that is what we think). Or you may appreciate the possibility these devices can give you to cultivate a never seen amount of social acquaintances, contacts or friends whenever and wherever you please (at least that is what we think, still). The reality has probably to be relativized: We do not have to be available at all times and the “facilitation of friendship” is often camouflaging a high price, we are not aware of paying in the short term. Everything comes at a cost. I am enormously relieved to have the possibility to get back to people wherever I am and whenever I want. At the same time, I somehow constantly feel overwhelmed by the never ending need of steadily having to answer and the inaccuracy and misunderstandings that result from the immediacy of certain answers. I somehow egoistically praise the communicative advantages technology could have for me, while getting annoyed by the same advantages, if adopted by my counterparts. It is of little help to know that my case, my exhaustion is shared and felt by almost everybody in my entourage, by people with thick skin. It is interesting to see people who are not easily stressed and with a high threshold of ”shit-taking before being annoyed” are similarly affected.

 

Analyze and know thyself

Something must be wrong then, as this conundrum does not seem to have a healthy solution. Nobody ever thought of adopting reactionary ideas or positions on “how communication was better before” as a quick fix. There is no way back. At least I don’t want it! On the other hand we all surely know and physically feel that we are not able to continue in this present condition. So a few weeks ago I decided I needed to get a better and deeper understanding of it all and maybe come up with a few ideas. Besides the mandatory reading, I started to regularly, but not obsessively, check the screen time on my devices. I later embarked on a analysis linking tasks, applications and time to understand, how my communication during the daily 24 hours was handled.

Step 1: Screentime

Around 90% of the screen time for communication (on devices) was assigned to email and messaging (texts and WhatsApp), while only 10% were used up by calls (voice or visual), by actual conversation so to say. “Classic social media” did not appear in my communication chart, as I was already following a very personal and strict digital minimalist approach to those applications. These results were not surprising or scary at a first glance. I was working and these applications are part of doing my job. It was only during the third step of my analysis, while comparing it to my research, that things started to look more real.

Step 2: Realtime

It was when I started to cross the before mentioned screen-time with my daily schedules that the real impact of communication tasks became visible. Face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients raised actual conversation time by a little bit, but I sincerely thought it’d be more. Adding up screen time, physical meetings and other professional tasks linked to communication (strategy, reading, coffee breaks et cetera), as well as the time of all remaining private communication / personal interaction, provided me with a rough overview or general breakdown of my daily communication. I did neither pretend nor assume that this analysis would be precise or scientific. It is a first personal sketch allowing an interesting insight in how much time I do spend on communication throughout the day on average and how this communication is carried out.

Step 3: Resulting time

The results of the cross-examination of data show clearly that I am conducting up to 80% of my communication (and tasks linked to communication) digitally, meaning by email and messaging (texts and WhatsApp), while the remaining 20% are spent by actual conversations and meetings. These numbers oscillate strongly (up to 10%) depending on the weekday and on the week of the trimester I was analyzing. As with step 1, these results are not really surprising, although I have to admit: I thought I’d actually spend more time with people inside the company. Shockingly, a lot of the meetings and lunches in my calendar are held with key partners, external to the company, and not with staff. Looking at the numbers it however becomes also clear that it is not only all down to me. The company I am working for is apparently following a strategy for internal communication based on these applications and channels (predominantly through email). Whether this is a conscious or unconscious decision, I could only guess. Looking at the organisation of the architectural space within the office buildings and how naturally “un-collaborative” they are layed out, the strategy may be deliberate. Now, without jugement or a need to decide whether those numbers are amazing or evil, what could they actually mean?

 

Communication: connection or conversation

As mentioned before, besides analyzing my habits, I needed to be able to confront it with literature. I wanted to understand and subdivide communication into different clusters in order to define how effective the applied tools really were. Leading researchers on subjective experience of technologydraw a clear distinction between connections (all low-bandwidth interactions defining our online social lives) and conversations (the much richer, high-bandwidth communication that defines real-world encounters between humans). Following that study and definition the majority of my interactions with the direction, my team, my clients  on a professional level, as well as with my friends on a very personal level, were mere connections. These interactions, although real, are minor compared to the value that could be generated by a conversation on Zoom, let alone a shared real-world meeting. Conversations are incredibly rich requiring our brains to process enormous amounts of information (body language, facial expressions, voice tone et cetera) reducing a WhatsApp message or even an email to a stripped down and dry piece of bone, missing most of the succulent meat.

also read  Soliloquy about Google and Education

 

What is said or what is meant?

I am at no point envisioning or suggesting that emails or messages should be banned or that they are worthless. I am on the other hand convinced that they need to be used and consumed within the right context and for the appropriate task or message. We all sometimes have awkward perceptions in our heads, when reading certain messages or emails. We may imagine that the sender must be living a really shitty day, that he must be frustrated, dumb, trivial or just incompetent. In the least imminent cases (from our perspective and with our personal biases) we may get the feeling of losing precious time and energy. In desperate cases (same perspective and biases) our heart rate goes up abruptly and we need a break, making us actually lose precious time and our short-term sanity. Always when reading a message or an email, but living on the other side of the sensitivity scale, we may think that the sender is offensive, looking down on us, out to get our job, a bully or just an arsehole. As before, the reaction of feeling to lose time or to really lose time will stay the same, with the only added difference being that all the needed foundations for a seamless, agile and trustful collaboration within the company could implode.

I am not ruling out that these feelings or awkward perceptions may also appear in rich and physical real-world conversations or calls. Nevertheless having a handful of extra inputs such as body language, facial expressions or the tone of voice improves perception and understanding strongly. As another added value, being in the same room or on the same screen contemporaneously allows everybody to question, challenge or rebuttal what is said to fully understand what is meant. This should be the basic sense of communication, internally as well as externally.

A much subtler and, in my opinion disturbing, effect is the way that connections (Texts, messages and social media) can subvert or suffocate the conversation that still remains. Regrettably our primal instinct to socially connect is so strong, making it difficult, nearly impossible, to resist checking a device in the middle of a meeting or during a call. We have all done it and witnessed it. Surely, we have all felt like being of less interest than a phone, whilst we were all making somebody feel like being less important than our phone.

 

A few rules and tricks

I started to follow a few simple tricks for my professional communication. Not to obsessively change my connection-conversation ratio, but to communicate more sincerely, more realistically and effectively. Generally, I am now seriously evaluating how the message could pass in the best possible way for me as a sender, but as well as the possible receiver. I decided therefore to firstly elaborate some clear standards linked to the usage of my high percentage communication channels (email and WhatsApp). I do not use these rules / tricks in a dogmatic manner. I try to follow them as closely as possible and propose them to my staff, so that they can come up with their own version of them. I invite you to do the same:

 

Rules:

 

Tricks:

These tricks, as most of my other articles, are part of the thought and writing process informing a white paper I am currently developing. It deals with contemporary ways of working, its rising issues and possible solutions. The analysis, before mentioned as a self-investigation, is currently conducted on a bigger scale and with more reliable data. New findings and possible added solutions will be shared in further articles. Even if it would be preferable to expose and explain them in a personal meeting or a conference, as I am not anti-technology, but pro-conversation.

References:
Turkle, S., Reclaiming Conversation. (2015), Penguin Business Books, 
Newport, C., Digital Minimalism. (2019), Penguin Business

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