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May 18, 2020

Strengthen Your Conversations Skills with Remote Work

By IT Revolution
BY AGILE CONVERSATIONS AUTHORS DOUGLAS SQUIRREL AND JEFFREY FREDRICK

Collaboration is built on skills, and you can build those skills through deliberate practice. This growth mindset view is particularly useful in our world of suddenly enforced remote working. Remote collaboration is more demanding and unfamiliar to a lot of people who are experiencing it for the first time. Responding to these new challenges with a fixed mindset, taking the view that remote working is just hard and there’s nothing to be done about it, is missing an opportunity. While remote collaboration is harder, it also offers options to rapidly build skills that will benefit you the rest of your life. 

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Collaboration is built on skills, and you can build those skills through deliberate practice.   [/perfectpullquote]

The challenge and opportunity of remote communication both come down to a change in affordances, something that is even captured in the evolution of the term. The word affordance was coined by psychologist James J. Gibson, and he used it to describe elements of the physical world:  “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.” This definition serves nicely when explaining why Alistair Cockburn put two people at a whiteboard as the pinnacle of communication media (see image below).

There are many useful affordances (a term which migrated from psychology to design through the work of Donald Norman) in that environment that you don’t get in other arrangements. The whiteboard allows words to be augmented by sketches and allows for the mutual refinement of those sketches, and it encourages the creation of a visual and verbal shorthand between the collaborators to fit the problem at hand. 

All of these affordances of a shared whiteboard are layered on top of all of the affordances of in-person, face-to-face conversation: tone, volume, body language, gestures, micro-expressions, and all the other elements that we unconsciously process. It is the loss of these affordances, upon which we’ve built our decades of experience, that leave us suddenly discomfited when we switch to electronic media. It also explains why a phone call is better than email, and why a video conference is better than a conference call. When our environment offers us more affordances we are better able to understand one another.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Remote collaboration, with its ability to have a record for later study, offers the diligent student far more study material to learn how they can improve their communication.[/perfectpullquote]

When we move from a physical meeting room to a virtual space, we are moving from the affordances of the environment to the affordances that have been designed and built into those systems. The most obvious affordance is that we’re now able to communicate with people who aren’t in the same room! However there’s another affordance that is of primary interest to people who want to improve their communication skills, the ability to record. Remote collaboration, with its ability to have a record for later study, offers the diligent student far more study material to learn how they can improve their communication.

As described in Agile Conversations, if we want to improve our communication skills we need to see our own performance clearly, and this requires “self-distancing.” Put another way, we can’t do the work in our own head because the cognitive biases that undermine our communication also undermine our learning. This is why Recording is the first of The Four Rs in our learning process.

Normally we work with people who are creating a conversational record from memory, doing their best to recall who said what, and in what order. The electronic media of remote collaboration will do this work for us, so we have our Slack transcript, our Zoom recording, or our email chain right there waiting for our analysis. All of these electronic records give us material to look back at our difficult conversations and learn how we might have done better.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]…if we want to improve our communication skills we need to see our own performance clearly, and this requires “self-distancing.”[/perfectpullquote]

The bad news is that while remote working gives us the material to work with, it doesn’t do the work for us. To actually improve still means putting in our own effort. Without doing the analysis, we won’t see that we actually weren’t very transparent, that we didn’t test our understanding with the other person, that not only were we not curious enough to ask questions but that we didn’t even acknowledge what the other person said. Without revising and creating an alternative dialogue, we won’t build the skills to collaborate the way we know we should. So actually improving is going to require doing the same kind of difficult emotional work that it always does.

If you’re feeling the discomfort of remote collaboration, wondering why you and your team aren’t quite as effective, remember that you can build your skills through deliberate practice. For those readers who are willing to put in the effort, remote work offers an abundance of material for rapid learning. Had a meeting in the morning? Use the video for analysis and apply the lessons in the afternoon. Feeling a tell and trying your pre-planned action? Check the tape to see how you did. Try some remote Role Play to prepare for the conversation you’re dreading.

The insights you gain and the skills you build will transform your conversations.

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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