42… Do you still need more explanation?
42 is the Answer to The Ultimate Question Of Life, the Universe and Everything (Google confirms this). According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a hyper-intelligent race constructed the second greatest computer in all of time and space, Deep Thought, to calculate the Ultimate Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After seven and a half million years, Deep Thought answered: “forty-two.” The computer rejected complains:
“I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
This is probably the largest known communication failure in the Galaxy. What about you? Do you know how to communicate effectively, avoid communication failures and still get things done?
Communicating with humans
We know that effective communication with humans requires skills, experience and effort. It is not easy and straightforward. Professor Albert Mehrabian explains that in communication
- Only 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
- 38% of meaning is in tone of voice.
- 55% of meaning is in facial expression and body language.
It is not overstatement. Our unconscious parallel processing in the brains is much more powerful than controlled sequential thinking. It is matter of our survival to use “gut feeling”, all senses and analyze many clues - much more than we can do with the limited conscious mind. In addition, we cannot trust words, we often use them for convincing explanations without really knowing how we came up with them.
Therefore, person-to-person, face-to-face communication is the most effective. But excessive communication could be a big waste of time and prevent us from accomplishing other things. To survive in the modern communication flood we should learn how to communicate effectively.
Selecting optimal communication channel
- Know when you shouldn’t communicate. Avoidance is Number 1 time saver and secret weapon of effective communicator. Do you really need to go to these meetings, answer these phone calls or emails and participate in messenger chats? Are you right person at all? Can you delegate communication to somebody?
- Information content. Information could range from simple facts (your disk is 100% full) to complex disputes (I don’t like you).
- Non-trivial, complex and questionable information requires rich communication channels. You can expect many questions, explanations and real-time interaction.
- Emotionally charged messages are difficult to deliver properly. You need many non verbal clues to correctly understand and avoid misinterpretation of a message.
- Importance. If communication is important for your job, career or life don’t trust low fidelity channels. It is really useful to have reliable system to deal with tasks (including communication) such as GTD. You will have much better control over life, less stress and get things done.
- Communication gaps. It is very difficult to completely understand another person. You and your communication partner need to jump large communication gap if you have little shared background, experience, not very familiar with each other and came from different cultures. Different people have completely different internal perspectives, beliefs and reasoning for the same information. Do you feel difference explaining software architecture ideas to experienced programmer, who worked with you many years, or marketing manager?
- Availability of communication channels, time and desire. Sometimes the person is not available for direct communication, sometimes you don’t have time, energy or simply don’t feel ready for communication and need time to think. Instead of direct communication you can send email with or leave voicemail with promise for the future conversation.
1. Face-to-face. Reserve this demanding, but most effective method when you really want to get you message across and understand your communication partner. Facial expression, body language, physical presence, voice, gestures, immediate questions and answers are very important for our brain processing and understanding. Don’t bother to use other communication methods when
- communication is vital, disputable or non-trivial
- message is emotionally charged, unclear and could be easily misunderstood
- you want to amaze people with your charm, intelligence or energy :)
- you are building trust, mutual understanding and personal connections
All other means of communication make sense only if you cannot use face-to-face or… not confident in yourself or hide something :).
2. Phone / Video-conference. Allows real-time questions and answers and still provides at least half of clues and half of communication value. It is good substitute if face-to-face interaction is not possible or doesn’t worth effort.
3. Instant messaging - effective alternative for time-sensitive and fast exchange of simple information.
4. Email. Some people condemn email as the kiss of death. However, email strikes balance between different factors:
- Not demanding for immediate attention. You can effectively use it with your work flow without interrupting work. Email exchange also allows to take pause, think and discuss answer with your boss :).
- Email still allows low cost quick exchange of information and doesn’t require formality and thorough revision as papers.
- Email leaves a trail of messages and serves as an excellent tool for covering asses. Emails can even be used as evidence in court.
However, email is very limited form of communication. It is effective when
- content is very clear and short with only one focused information topic
- sender uses specific and informative subject lines (try to avoid Hi!).
- sender cuts and comments only relevant points on reply, don’t drug long conversations.
- there is a productivity system in place to deal with email flood (e.g. Inbox Zero)
5. Documentation / Broadcast (web site, blog, etc.). Information on paper or web page doesn’t equal the same information in reader mind. Not many people could be good writers and effectively convey their ideas.
- Use documentation only when you don’t have any choice and you completely sure that people understand you. And most of them will still not get it unless information is simple, very well presented and you are very talented writer.
- However, documentation and broadcast is the only choice when you need to reach more people when you can.
- You expect long time horizon for the documentation life, it is valuable information that shouldn’t be forgotten
42 could be an answer what you was looking for the whole life, but most probably it leaves you very puzzled.
Don’t puzzle other people - learn to communicate effectively. Don’t waste your time - learn to communicate with minimum effort and maximum result.
How do you communicate effectively and still get things done? Please, share your experience.