Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Talking vs Communicating

It's easy to conflate talking with communication. Sure, most of the time I would suggest that when people are talking, people are communicating. But the opposite isn't necessarily true. A lack of talking does not necessarily mean there's a lack of communication, or a lack of collaboration. We should be aware of this when making observations about people and the teams they work in.

Last week, I had the privilege of experiencing the Silent Experiment at the Inclusive Collaboration summit (more on that in the future).

I was sat with two people whom I'd never met before, and not spoken to before, and assembled a prosthetic hand for an amputee in a developing country.

The twist: It was in complete silence, without so much as a 'hello'.

I expected the experience to be awkward.

I was wrong.

While we couldn't communicate with words, we found ourselves communicating with our movements, and with our faces. Because we had to communicate intent with our actions, our movements were deliberate and graceful. As we reached the limit of our understanding of what to do next, the task flowed from hands to hands as we passed the partially-completed construct along. We stepped in when we could help, and stepped out when we couldn't.

It was like a dance, with the three of us moving in and out as we established our rhythm and syncronised out movements. We were methodical and calm ... at least on the outside.

Inside, there were times I didn't understand the written instructions, and I wanted to express my bewilderment. Instead, I was forced to watch what the others were doing, and relate it back to the instructions. I would eventually understand, and perhaps see what needed to happen next, in which case, I'd step in to perform the next step. I was never left behind; we were continually watching out for one another, communicating with our eyes and with our actions.

On reflection, I realised that had I been allowed to talk, I would have expressed my frustration, and we would have stopped as we discussed what was going on. It would have broken our dance. Reading my team-mate Liz's experiences I learnt that she too had an inner storm raging. If we had let these out, we would have injected anxiety and frustration into the team. I sincerely believe it would have slowed us down. Or if not, the process would certainly have been more stressful. Instead, we calmly proceeded, took care of one another, and got on with it.

As we performed the experiment we wrote down on post-its what we wanted to say, and at the end we divided the post-its into "Things we wanted to say, but didn't need to..." and "Things we wanted to say...and still do."

A big takeaway was that most of the post-its went into the "didn't need to" pile. It turned out that a lot of the talking we wanted to do was ultimately unnecessary. And the things people still wanted to talk about were mostly expressions of gratitude and congratulations like "we did it!" and "well done!" We got around this by giving each other silent claps.

The biggest takeaway though, was that it made stark the gulf of difference between "talking" and "communicating". Without saying a single word, we communicated, and we collaborated, and we built a prosthetic hand.

How often do we find ourselves saying "The problem with this team is that they don't talk with one another" or "You need to talk to people".

I propose that when we hear the word 'talk', we swap it with the word 'communicate'.

"The problem with this team is that they don't communicate with one another" or "You need to communicate with people".

Because you can certainly communicate without talking, and you can certainly talk without communicating.

Talking isn't the goal; it's a means to an end. The goal is communication, and communication can come in many forms. It's tempting to walk into a quiet space and assume that people aren't communicating. And it's tempting to try and "fix" it by getting people to talk more. But talking isn't everyone's preferred or even effective communication style.

Not only that, but talking produces a lot of noisy spaces. Technology is a creative field, and there is a lot of literature linking quietness with creativity.

Similarly, it's tempting to walk into a space full of chatter and marvel at all the communication, whereas, there may not be much signal to the noise. Again, I suggest just using the mental heuristic of swapping "talking" with "communicating" just to check yourself. There's a lot of talking, yes, but is there a lot of communication?  Is there a lot of collaboration?

I'm not saying that talking is bad, and silence is good. I just want to point out that talking and communication aren't necessarily the same thing, and by being conscious of that, we can prevent trying to 'fix' problems that aren't there, and prevent being blind to problems drowned out by chatter. I also encourage teams to explore collaboration styles that involve silence, to see what emerges.

Please read more about Inclusive Collaboration and the Silence Experiment here:

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