When I first started working remotely I struggled with communication.
Since I wasn’t in the office every day, I couldn’t just stroll up to my coworker’s desk and run an idea or question by them. Instead of face-to-face conversations, I was having chats over Slack and Skype, using emojis to try to translate some semblance of emotion.
I remember one specific instance when I reached out to a coworker for help. My initial question was peppered with smiley faces and words like ‘howdy’ to convey a sense of playfulness. I was greeted with short, one-word answers that jumped straight to the point.
While I tried not to read too far into the answers, it was hard not to. Here I was in my first remote work environment trying to connect with coworkers and instead I almost felt like a nuisance.
Definitely not the way I wanted to come across.
A little over a year later, I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered remote communication, but I have become much more comfortable building relationships with coworkers through both text and face-to-face conversation.
Here are 3 steps you can take towards becoming a better communicator:
1. Start off on the right foot
The start of a conversation sets the tone for how the rest will go. Here are two elements I keep in mind when kicking off a discussion.
Have an open mind
Your mindset as you enter a conversation can have a huge impact on the outcome. Unfortunately, it’s usually for the worse. Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error explains how human nature works against us when we start an argument:
The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume they are ignorant. You know, they don’t have access to the same information we do and when we generously share that information with them, they are going to see the light and come on over to our team.
…When it turns out those people have all the same information and they still don’t agree with us we move onto a second assumption. They’re idiots.
I’ve been guilty of having a closed mind on several occasions. When discussing a change to an existing feature, for example, my mind immediately shuts down. I begin lobbying whole-heartedly for my point of view with my eyes closed, not taking a second to look at the other side.
You’re equals, not adversaries
When trying to start a productive conversation with a coworker, we don’t want to immediately paint them as an adversary. That’s great in theory but harder in practice.
When approaching a developer with an issue, for example, I might be tempted to just come out with it:
I think you may have broken [insert feature here] with this last commit.
While that certainly does get my point across, it immediately establishes that they’ve done something wrong. Instead, I collectively group us both together, a team with the sole goal of improving the user experience:
I’ve seen a few reports from users of [insert feature here] not working as expected. I noticed this right after this commit: [link]. Think the two could be related?
In that way, it’s not me versus the developer. It’s us versus the bug.
2. Be clear and concise
When we initiate a conversation, we typically have a goal in mind: Get our point across. Two aspects have helped me to do that more effectively.
Remember the initial conversation I mentioned where I filled my question with fluff and exclamation marks only to be greeted by a one word answer? My colleagues weren’t trying to brush me off. They were just trying to be as efficient as possible.
Having a direct conversation style can be important particularly if everyone’s plates are filled with work. Karen Friedman, TV reporter and author of the book Shut Up And Say Something, advises individuals to follow the newscaster drill of hitting on the who, what, where, when, and why in a conversation.
Think about what the single most important point is that you need to make, the central idea. If your computer died or the fire alarm went off, what would be the one thing they needed to hear?
Whether you’re working in a company of 5 or 5,000, there’s a time for playful chatting and a time for more direct conversation. Don’t interpret the latter as an insult. Chances are your coworker is just trying to get their point across and get back to the work at hand.
Choose your words carefully
This harkens back to painting both parties as equals, not adversaries. Coworkers are more receptive to feedback when they feel like their working with you towards a common goal rather than defending themselves.
One tip I’ve found to be particularly helpful is what Linda Hill, author of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, terms ‘owning your part‘. By using words like ‘I’ as opposed to ‘you’, we own our feelings rather than attribute them to someone else.
I’ve also found value in adjusting my language based on the individual I’m conversing with. If I’ve met someone in person and feel as though they have a grasp on my sense of humor, I’m comfortable slipping in some more personality. If I’m having my first interaction with someone, I hold back a bit while I assess the situation. This helps to prevent inadvertent offenses as we get to know each other.
3. Learn the value of being a better listener
We typically view our role in conversations as one-sided; we’re the one passing along our insight and wisdom. But, we actually have two roles: one as a speaker and another as a listener.
The importance of active listening has been drilled into our heads since we were young, but unfortunately many of us still aren’t very good at it. We often feel like we can peruse our Twitter feed while also listening to a coworker, research indicates we can’t.
This detriment in performance while multi-tasking has been coined the cognitive bottleneck theory. We have a finite amount of attention to devote and when we try to spread that attention out amongst several stimuli our retention suffers.
In an effort to devote my attention to the conversation at hand, I try to eliminate distractions as much as possible—my phone goes in my pocket, I minimize other windows on my screen, and I set myself ‘Away’ on Slack.
Particularly in a remote environment, it can be heard to really read your coworkers.
Direct language can be interpreted as the other individual being rude or feeling annoyed. Jokes don’t seem to land quite as well. Tones can be completely misunderstood and misconstrued.
In addition to the tips above, I try to adhere to what I view as the golden rule of communication:
Always assume the other individual has your best intentions at heart.
In this new light, direct language is just someone rushed and trying to save time. The lack of digital laughter following a joke is just everyone hard at work or laughing quietly to themselves. Keeping that rule in mind helps to take seemingly negative aspects of conversation and turn them into positives.