Chapter 2: How to communicate
Because we mostly communicate through writing, it's crucial to learn how to write effectively. Whenever you're composing a message to colleagues, it can be helpful to think about these guidelines.
Get to the point.
Communicating asynchronously takes more effort than chatting in person, which makes brevity and clarity all the more valuable.
Generally speaking, here are some great tips for improving your written communication.
If you are soliciting feedback from others, start with your request or question, and then tell us the exact type of feedback you're looking for, whether it be detailed comments or a simple approval.
Empathize with your audience.
Think about which of your colleagues might want to reply to your message, and then revise it with them in mind. Have you left out any crucial context they may be unaware of? Can you remove any extraneous detail your audience doesn't need to wade through? Can you take out any domain-specific jargon that others might not understand, even after Googling it?
Try to include everything your colleagues need to understand or act upon your message, and nothing more. Everything else is a waste of their time.
Mistakes are an opportunity for growth.
We're all human, and we all make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable when you're learning and growing. It can be frustrating when someone makes a mistake that affects your work or stumbles when trying to grow in an area you have expertise in. But when we discourage mistakes or shut people down when they stumble, we're discouraging their personal growth and development.
In our team, we try to focus on approaching mistakes with honesty and understanding, rather than on simply eliminating them. That means pointing out mistakes as they happen, without chastising the person responsible. Instead, we discuss how we can prevent the issue from happening in the future. If necessary, we might want to create tasks for ourselves (like changing the product or changing company policy) to ensure the mistake doesn't happen again.
Assume positive intent.
When we assume by default that our colleagues mean to do the right thing, we can ensure that our collective mistakes and gaffes don't derail our professional relationships.
This is especially important when communicating though text, which lacks much of the context of talking face-to-face in an office. For example, unless you're actively giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt, it can be easy to misconstrue a quick Slack message as an aggressive personal insult. Take a breath, re-read the message, and proactively work to understand the intent behind it, starting with the assumption that everyone involved is willing to do the same.
What does it look like to actively work towards understanding? To start, try asking yourself the following questions:
- Is there a chance that you've misinterpreted the message?
- What in particular makes this message feel like an attack?
- What about the context is making you assume the worst?
- Is there a chance that your colleague has misinterpreted something?
- Is there a chance that your colleague is missing some crucial information, skewing their perception of the situation?
- Is there anything you could clarify that might resolve the situation?
Remote work is isolating enough without the added layer of distrust that can arise from misinterpreted messages left unresolved. When you assume that everyone around you has good intentions, you're that much closer to building and maintaining a coherent, happy team.
Your words matter.
Since we disproportionately communicate in writing, the content and tone of your words have an outsize effect on your colleagues.
If you're in a leadership position, your words can really affect the team's direction, and your tone has a sharp impact upon morale. If you toss off a rant in a Github issue during an especially aggravating workday, the impact of your message won't fade over time. Instead, it will be re-read by others, dissected, and inevitably rediscovered months later when someone's searching through old threads.
That's why it's important to always treat your colleagues with respect. You are permitted and encouraged to speak up (emphatically, if necessary!) if you disagree with their perspective, but keep in mind that their viewpoints do not represent a personal attack.
In turn, you should take pains to ensure your arguments address the specific actions and opinions of your colleagues, not their personal character. Remember that we all have a common goal for the company to succeed. We don't need to tear each other down or score political points in pursuit of that.
You should also lean on the side of over-communicating, taking the time to express nuance you might find obvious and unnecessary. For example, managers should always clarify whether they're giving direction or a suggestion, whether they're just throwing an idea out there or telling a subordinate to do something.
Accept small delays in dialogue.
There are a few trade-offs of working asynchronously, and small delays are one of them. If you generally expect an immediate reply from your colleagues whenever you need something from them, you'll need to give that up. Your co-worker might be tied up in a difficult project, you might be interrupting them at the end of their workday, or you might be asking them a question that they can't realistically answer in five minutes.
As a rule, try to give colleagues a few hours to respond to your questions, and at least a day or two to complete something you assign them. If they take even longer to respond, don't read too much into it! They might be absorbed in a challenging project, or merely offline.
In a work culture that forgives the occasional delay in communication, you might sometimes be a little annoyed when someone doesn't get back to you in time, but you also benefit. Instead of treating every Slack DM as worthy of your undivided and immediate attention, you can designate a block of time in the near future to respond to colleagues when you are able.
Likewise, if you give colleagues adequate breathing room to accommodate your requests, you'll find that most of your “urgent” requests can actually be assigned with a few day's notice. This mutual understanding leads to a calmer, more healthy work environment.
Of course, whenever a colleague asks you something, a quick reply is always better than saying nothing at all. Just telling your colleague that you got their request goes a long way towards making them feel heard.
Proactively resolve conflict.
If you're consistently frustrated with a specific colleague, or strongly disagree with something they've said, don't suppress your frustration. Instead, take a deep breath, examine whether your concerns have merit, and go talk to your colleague about it if they do. If talking to them directly doesn't resolve the situation, talk to your manager.
Because we only see each other a few times a week, the person you're upset with likely has no idea how you feel. And, if you're not visibly agitated during your 1-on-1's, your manager likely has no idea either. Bottling up your concern, or papering over things for the sake of reducing drama, only opens the door to greater conflict later on. It's your responsibility to bring up and try to resolve your concerns as they arise.