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Thoughts On Our Natural Inability to Communicate Well

Many believe the best way to communicate is face to face. Being able to see the other person allows both communication partners to read each other’s body language and facial expressions. It feels most natural and doesn’t require additional effort, as that’s the form of communication we humans have been used to ever since.

In fact for almost all beings on planet Earth being within close range to each other when communicating is the only form possible. All those beings need to either see, hear or smell their communication partners. All, but humans. Humans have evolved into a species that can leverage two new forms of communication: one is sophisticated verbal communication and the other is communication through symbols.

Throughout our existence, we humans have developed thousands of different languages and usually also a corresponding form of scripture that allows us to record information, share and transmit it or get back to it at a later time. Being able to perform these activities has allowed us to evolve even further mentally and create complex societies and tools.

But why is it so difficult for us to communicate well with only the written word? Isn’t it that the same written word has allowed us to get to where we are now?

Maybe it is because not all of us possess the same skill to read and process the written word?

There is an activity that teaches us the skill to read and process the written word. It is called interpreting literature. The mechanics of this activity can be visualized as in the following diagram.

Context writer text reader

As the reader I will understand any text from within my own context. Context is the combination of my work/life situation, my education, my acquired believes, my skill of reading in a given language (the language of the text) and whatever else has influence on my understanding of what I read. For the writer there is also his own context and when he writes a text there is the context of the moment when the text is written.

The simpler and the shorter a text is, the less information about its context can be revealed to the reader. Think about Twitter messages. They are limited to 140 characters. People send them out of a situation at work, when they had a thought while walking or talking to a friend or something else. My, limited, observation is that people do take into account that limited context and don’t get into arguments because they understand that they can’t understand well what the person says. So they, when in doubt, assume the best.

In the case of email we don’t have that limitation. We can write very long texts and it may take an hour to write a meaningful email that not only transports what we want to say but also enough context so that the recipient understands why we write and what our situation was.

The challenge now becomes one of reading. Given the writer is good at expressing complex thoughts in a concise manner, if the reader just skims over the text due to time constraints or isn’t really willing to read thoroughly, we have a communication breakdown despite all good intentions and effort. It’s the context of the reader that becomes an impediment to working communication.

I feel that written communication only works when the communication partners are willing to invest and keep an open mind. In the case of literature the writer just puts the text out for anyone interested to read. It’s more a broadcast model. Writer and reader don’t have a tight relationship so there is not much harm being done, if the reader doesn’t understand the text as indented. However, in a work context, a lot of harm is being done when writer and reader don’t understand each other.

We can mitigate the negative effects of our natural inability to communicate well or we can invest into an improvement of our communication skills.

The prevalent recommendation to work within co-located teams to enable face to face communication is such a mitigation strategy. It creates a multi-channel situation for all communication partners but as soon as some leave the room and start relying on less channels the problems show up again.

Agile software development practitioners have shown us many good techniques to create high quality software. Once we start to use the agile mindset outside of software development teams we will need to solve the communication problem.

Software teams can share working software with the rest of the organization. For example, one team can share a library with other teams and the library is their product. They can send an ambassador with the code to the other team for a while to carry the context of the text to their colleagues.

What about when the product is something else than software?

I was just saying ambassador. I’ve seen some thoughts about a lattice organization where each group within the lattice shares a member with neighboring groups.