effective communication skills

Playing well is a vital skill at any age

Hold hands, & stick together = playing well

For many of us, September is when our children head back to school wearing a backpack full of new pencils, erasers, notebooks, and folders. We attend Open House to meet our child’s new teachers and to understand the expectations for the new academic year. Regardless of your child’s grade, the constant theme is one of collaboration and teamwork. For the elementary levels, this goal is shared in Robert Fulghum’s poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” as ‘play fair’, and is outlined in a high school’s 21st-century learning framework as a specific skill.

Either way, collaboration, and teamwork are important skills for students to practice before entering the workforce, as they will need to rely on other people to succeed. It also serves as a reminder to those who have many years of work experience (and know the trials and tribulations of teamwork) that teamwork skills need to be continuously honed for mastery. Research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland found that the most important predictor of a team’s success is its communication patterns. These patterns are as significant as all other factors – intelligence, personality, and talent – combined.

At Bridging Distance, we found similar themes in our work. Our research shows that advanced communication dynamics in virtual teams significantly improved their ability to work well together and produce results faster. This is evident in successful virtual teams. By helping build explicit processes and critical skills, members stay energized and engaged in their work together. These processes center on getting the right information to the right people at the right time, via the right technology; it means expectations for posting documents and messages in a repository. This allows each team member to find what they need when they need it, without searching cluttered inboxes at a later date. It also means defining what types of situations are more urgent, and require a more immediate response. Posting updates and status allows communication dynamics to be a dialog about the significance of the information. These interactions tend to more interesting, and therefore more engaging to team members. It means the right people attend meetings, while those who only need to have updates can confidently and respectfully spend their time elsewhere.

Our research also shows that people with excellent digital communication habits are significantly happier in their jobs, therefore more productive. Managing digital interruptions is key; balancing responding to others versus staying present in the moment means you can be fully attentive to your current activity. Being curious about the environment of others paves the way to learning what you don’t know. Teaching leaders how to foster rapport across Distance enables them to motivate Millennials, communicate with a multicultural team, and respond quickly to change.

Technology dehumanizes relationships; our work helps re-humanize them. We use a simple tool for diagnosing root cause in digital workplace environment called The Distance Lens™. Viewing workplace performance through Interpersonal, Organizational, Physical, and Technological differences allow us to provide solutions to fix problem areas without inadvertently breaking ones that work well.

Bridging Distance provides behavioral-based solutions for companies to manage existing or anticipated distance complexities that impact employee performance. Through a combination of proprietary assessments, evidenced-based workshops, and customized coaching, Bridging Distance develops and maximizes employee engagement to accelerate productivity, profitability and employee retention.

So, heed Robert’s advice from Kindergarten and “when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” Partnering with Bridging Distance will build your pathways to move forward together.

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

frequency

Reducing Audio Feedback Across the Global Pond

As many global teams know all too well, staying on the same wavelength in video conferencing—despite all of our modern technologies—can remain a herculean effort. In a world getting increasingly smaller, a bad virtual connection reminds us of the distance that still remains between us. For teams working against great cultural and geographical distances a good audio connection can make the difference between teams working effectively together or simply wasting each others’ time.

In a recent Bridging Distance consultation with a globally distributed team we encountered typical feedback troubles.

Our first transatlantic meeting with this organization consisted of virtual attendees in Cambridge, Massachusetts; northern Massachusetts; New Jersey; and Paris, France. As the meeting opened in Cambridge, the attendees a mere hour away were greeted with static, feedback, and white noise, though the attendees in Paris heard them with crystal clarity. Although Cambridge, Massachusetts, considers itself to have a real European flair, this did nothing to facilitate communication with the actual Europeans. What happened? More importantly, what steps need to be taken so that everyone can participate fully?

The following are three tips to ensure communication clarity across distance

mute button

 1.  The Mute Button is Your Friend.

Use it.  When not speaking, mute your computer (especially if you are taking notes, as the even quiet clicking of a keyboard is amplified and broadcast to everyone).  Muting is often overlooked as “too basic” to make a difference, but even if you think you are in a quiet location, ambient noise can be the death knell to a productive virtual meeting.  Just be sure to unmute your microphone before speaking.

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2.  Wear Headphones (Not Just Earbuds!)

Headphones with microphones will reduce feedback, such as a Bluetooth or even the headphones that are included with the iPhone.

the screamEchoes are deadly.

With headphones, not only will you be able to hear your co-participants but they will be able to hear you!

If there is more than one person physically with you during the conference you may want to invest in a Polycom Calling Kit, or similar device.

The Polycom computer calling kit enables the phone to work with the Polycom PVX desktop video conferencing application, serving as the microphone and speaker for desktop video calls. Polycom Calling Kits will heighten the level of professionalism and take your business to the next level.

Polycom also makes a more cost-effective speaker and microphone device to plug into your computer. They are each optimized for different software and computer configurations, so be careful to purchase the correct one for your needs.

While Polycom may be the gold standard, the Yamaha PJP-20UR Web Conference Microphone Speaker is an example of a plug and play echo-cancelling device that seems simpler to use than the PolyCom devices.

3.  Limit Computers / Audio Sources to One Per Room.

business-woman-in-office-with-computer-talks-on-headsetThough it may be tempting to crowd around one screen when you have multiple people at one location, having more than one computer in a room increases feedback as the microphones pick up what other team members are saying. This is especially important if you do not have headphones and do not mute your computer, thus disregarding our previous expert advice.

While the difficulties may seem daunting and at times frustrating, audio and video conferencing is worth the effort.  Being able to see and hear each other clearly across great distances will lead to a greater sense of community and better collaboration across the board and across the world.

Question for readers: Have any advice or Pet Peeves when it comes to audio / video conferencing?

Before Hitting the Send Key

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What you Need to Know about Cross-Cultural Emailing

Cultural understanding can make or break any team, but especially an international one. Cultural misunderstandings can drive irreparable wedges in relationships. Not only is it important in avoiding potentially expensive and embarrassing blunders but it is also important in building cohesive teams.

When reading the emails of people from different cultures, we do not have the luxury of being able to read their body language as we do face-to-face; therefore the precise meaning of their words is extremely important. This difficulty is amplified when the emailer is from a culture different from your own. Understanding the cultural context of their words is essential to your overall understanding of intent.

How Email Varies from Country to Country

First, be aware that people differ—that we don‘t all have the same perspectives, nor the same assumptions about actions and behaviors. What is polite and assumed in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. For example, Americans generally shoot off many emails quickly and casually, and are generally straight to the point; however, in much of Africa and South America,  it would be considered rude not to add a personal touch and to get down to business right away. Additionally, in countries like Germany, there are clearly delineated formal rules for business emails.

Language Pitfalls

It is paramount to be mindful of potentially confusing idioms, jargon, or too much slang. For Americans, this might mean avoiding phrases like “bite the bullet,” which might be taken too literally by nonnative speakers.

Confusion can occur even between native English speakers from different countries. For example, in the U.K., “To table the discussion” in the parliamentary sense is to lay a topic on the speaker’s table for discussion, while in the U.S. “to table the discussion” means to postpone it until later.

Many countries — but not all — love to use sports references in business–everything will be a “homerun.” People from countries where sports analogies are not the norm may wonder why they have to run home or devine no meaning from a “sticky wicket” reference — it is all but meaningless to those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket.

Generally, to avoid language misunderstanding, make what you think is implicit explicit. Double-check your wording for idiomatic phrases that may not be universally understood.  Don’t assume that your reader understands your metaphors or analogies.

Differences in Culture

Of course language is just a manifestation of the differences in cultures. There are High and Low Context cultures. In High Context cultures, messages have very little meaning without an understanding of the surrounding context. France is very high context culture–you need to understand the culture in order to understand the intent. While a non-French speaker may think they are being friendly by putting “merci” at the end of their email, to a French speaker it is a passive aggressive “thank you–now go forth and do my bidding.”

On the other hand, in Low Context cultures the meaning lies mostly in the message itself. In many English speaking countries, for example, as well as countries like Germany, Norway, or Sweden there is less need to read between the lines, as from a young age they are taught to say what they mean and communicate directly. However, a “yes” in a high-context culture like Japan does not imply a firm commitment but generally means “Yes, I understand.”

If email is the only point of contact you have with someone, and they commit a cultural faux pas, it can be harder to overlook and overcome when all that is seen is the email address and not the person behind that address.

It’s important to know what is appropriate to say and do given a person’s position within the company. Integral to this understanding is Power Distance–which anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In a Large Power Distance country, the distance between bosses and their subordinates is liable to be more significant, and must be especially observed.  For example, in many Asian cultures, subordinates are more deferential to their bosses and authority, so be careful not to address bosses in a too familiar manner.  On the other hand, in low distance countries like the Netherlands and the U.K., bosses are seen as more approachable “equals” and language may feel somewhat disrespectful or mutinous, if you are in a leadership position receiving communications, as it may be far less deferential than you may be accustomed to.

When emailing to Large Power Distance countries, bosses may need to give permission to subordinates, so they should not be contacted directly. At the very least, the supervisor should be CC’d in the email.

While acknowledging differences in manners and values be careful not to overgeneralize. These are people too, working within their own cultural context of assumptions and predispositions, just we as you are. Not all Americans eat fast food in the slowlane of the highway (credit: the late George Carlin). Be careful not to attribute one action of one person to an entire country.

To mitigate problems of traversing different cultures, be as overt as possible with your intentions. Assume benevolence and don’t assume that actions you find hostile to be ill-intended. Whenever possible ask for clarification! This is a trust building opportunity!

Once you learn how other cultures interact, you’ll see how stereotypes about “rudeness” and other misunderstandings just melt away.

Readers: Please share any experiences you have had with emailing or communicating with people from cultures other than your own! Thank you!

Dividing the Housework without Dividing the Household

Teleworking and Relationships

I sit on the couch reading an article about men doing more housework than ever before while my boyfriend handwashes dishes in our tiny NYC apartment. He has just served us an elaborate breakfast of omelettes and French pressed coffee, which we ate in silence as I checked email and created my daily to-do list. Part of me –the feminist, liberal-arts-degree part—feels deserving and almost expectant of this behavior. However, another part of me—the Texan, raised-to-be-a-southern-housewife part—feels unsettled by this strange turn of events.

To clarify the situation: I work from home. I am a remote intern for a consulting firm, which means that I sit on the couch in my pajamas translating research into more meaningful terms for my bosses, who then translate it into more meaningful terms to their clients. My partner has been off work for a month, awaiting the start of his new job this coming week. During his time off, we have exhausted our free time (and ourselves) by exploring our new home: the touristy sites, the dive bars, and the overwhelmingly diverse population of NYC.

In order for us to have the time to do these things, though, there has been a severely uneven distribution of labor. He cooks, he cleans, and he runs our errands. All the while, I type away at my laptop, lost in the world of data analysis and theoretical modeling. It’s the most efficient way to do things: we both work, we both play. We both have it all.

The problem I see approaching us, however, is the beginning of his job this week. He will be working long hours with a grueling commute, whereas I will be working long hours primarily from home and the café across the street. I want to reiterate: We will both be working. So my question is, will we both make breakfast? Will we both wash the dishes?

This is where telework is potentially dangerous for relationships. Historically, the distribution of labor in the household has been much clearer: there is housework to do, and bacon to bring home. Each partner chooses a task and both are accomplished. However, as more and more couples are choosing to have a dual-income household, the boundaries between tasks become fuzzier. Add in the complicated phenomenon of being a “telecommuter”, and you have yourself a pretty confusing situation.

As a telecommuter, your home is your office. As a 1950s-style housewife, your office is your home. Do you see how this could lead to confusion surrounding whose job it is to do the housework around here? Typically the housework is done by the partner who spends more time in the house, thus is more available to do these tasks. However, this rule can’t apply for telecommuters—the time we spend in the house is already spoken for.

I’m not sure I have a resolute answer for how work should be divided in a dual-income partnership, especially with the added complication of telecommuting. But I do know that gender roles are changing, and that these issues will come to the forefront as women slowly earn more than 77 cents to the male dollar, and telecommuting becomes more popular for both men and women alike.

In the meantime? My BA in Psychology (as well as a certain amount of trial-and-error experience) qualifies me to advise the following:

  • Discuss your expectations. Splitting things down the middle is probably impractical, but an open conversation should allow you to come to a more equal arrangement. Your partner might not realize how much weight you have been carrying while he/she is at work; simply listing all the chores that need to be done in a given week might give them insight into how they can contribute.

  • State the obvious. Although it seems obvious to you and me, your partner might not understand the terms of your work-from-home situation. Try to patiently spell it out by comparing it to their work experience: although working from home does free you from a long commute, being “on the clock” means the same as what it would in a traditional office. Just like he/she wouldn’t interrupt their busy workday to go grocery shopping, you can’t be expected to drop your work to fold a load of laundry.

  • Be patient. Any change in a relationship dynamic takes time. Although you might not be completely satisfied in the beginning, know that any progress is still progress. As you and your partner transition to a more equal distribution of work, be sure to tell him/her how much you appreciate their efforts.

Questions for readers: How do you divide the housework in your family? How does telecommuting affect the way you accomplish household tasks?

Telecommuters — Get Connected!

It’s not enough to get the job done.  When your workspace is not physically connected to your team, you must make the effort to connect in other ways.

You are already trusted to work on your own, at home, unsupervised.  You must’ve already done something right.

Now that you are working outside of the office, you need to continue to “do things right” in order to be viewed as a valued and trusted member of your team.

But here’s where most companies fail with regards to people working from home — they seldom provide explicit guidelines or expectations.  And then they run on feelings and random observations to form their opinion of your abilities.

This is dangerous to your career as your ability to communicate and to meet unspoken expectations becomes the basis for evaluation.  Read that carefully — this is not an evaluation of your actual abilities.

You can rock your skill set, yet become stagnant in your career if you aren’t great at “being part of the team” that you are physically separated from.

What can you do?  Specifically:

  • Keep a consistent work schedule and communicate that schedule to both the people on your team who need to reach you; and the people most likely to interrupt you while at home (your family, friends, etc.).

– Your team will develop the mindset that you are working, available, and                                 “there” for them.

– Your family and friends will be less likely to make demands on you during                             this time (dog will not likely understand, however, and still drop balls at                               your feet and scratch at the door).

  • When you know of an upcoming interruption to this schedule, let your team know. Working from home implies that your discretion is to be trusted, so if you need to work differently on any given day, a quick heads-up to your team will go a long way to head off any frustration at not being able to reach you.
  • Communicate frequently with your teammates.  Stay Connected.  There are so many ways to talk to each other, there is no excuse to be out of touch.  Participate in phone conferences, video-meetins, company newsgroups, etc..  If these aren’t created yet — Create them!

How do you create mindshare when separated from your team?

Do What You Say. Say What You Mean.

When you work with others primarily through email (or text or IM), instead of eye to eye, saying ‘no’ becomes easier.  Saying ‘yes’ becomes easier, too.  Tapping out excuses on your keyboard is exponentially easier than making the same excuse in person (right?!)

Most people aren’t even aware of the promises they are making and breaking countless times each day.

So, Stop!

Right now.

Make the decision to be more thoughtful in your electronic communications.

Pause before saying no.

Pause before saying yes — don’t commit to something unless you are certain you can follow through.

Do what you say you’re going to do.  Every single time.

Let others know as quickly as you can to renegotiate deadlines when you can’t.

Whether you notice how easily you make and break promises or not, it is guaranteed that others do.  Your reputation is being shaped and refined each time, and reputation is everything to continued success when working from home.

Keep your promises (even the ones you make to yourself).

Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. — Abraham Lincoln

Does more email mean you are MORE important?

“Were you copied on Steve’s email?”

“Did you see what she wrote?”

“I have over 100 emails just from this morning!”

These are the informal conversations that take place in the central locations — the true power hubs of any organization — where the corporate culture is defined and reinforced.

We’ve worked with many companies for the specific purpose of reducing email volume only to discover that their corporate culture, subliminally, uses email as an indicator of a person’s value.  The more email you have and generate, the more valuable you are viewed within the organization.

We worked with one leader and her team to reduce the overall email volume between her, her team, and external team contacts.  As her team learned exactly what her expectations were regarding email, she was copied on fewer messages.  Without so much email to wade through, she got more work done and responded quicker to her team’s needs.  She contacted her boss and other external contacts to establish similar expectations.  Most people responded positively, and thanked her for her consideration.

Come performance review time, her boss criticized her for not communicating enough with her team and with external contacts, despite the fact that she and her team reached, and often, exceeded, goals.  Somehow, the conversation regarding email expectations had been forgotten and she received a poor performance review.

Ultimately, her review was redone after she shared the positive feedback from her team and from external contacts regarding her communication process.

It takes one team at a time to change a corporate culture.  Given the tools and opportunity, people will choose to create an environment they can thrive in by giving one another permission to change their email habits.

As you go through your work week, consider how you view email.  Is a lot of email a badge of honor, of importance?  Do you view others as more or less important, based partially, on how many times their name pops up in your inbox?  What conversations about email “load” do you hear around the proverbial water cooler and what do these conversations mean to your corporate culture?  Do you really want less email?

"Replyallcalpyse" or "The Day NYU Broke"

It was bound to happen.

Every single one of us has accidentally sent an email somewhere, for whatever reason, and suffered through the unintended consequences.  But likely none of us quite so spectacularly as NYU sophomore Max Wiseltier.

Poor Max thought he was forwarding an email to his mom asking for help on a new paperless tax form request from the university’s bursar’s office.

What he, in fact, did, was click “reply all” and PRESTO, BAM-O, his message hit the inbox of every single one of his fellow students — all 39,979 of them!  Yikes!

As realization dawned, Max fired off a quick apology, but it was too late.  His errant message “triggered a rare, University-wide revelation,” wrote Kelly Weill in NYU Local.  “We simultaneously realized that any message, complaint, whim, link, video, or GIF could be sent to nearly 40,000 people in an instant.”

And the messages flew:

“Does anyone have a pencil I can borrow?” asked one.

“I want us all to be happy,” said another.

“Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or 1 horse-sized duck?” posed yet another.

That was just the beginning.  Many students took the opportunity to send out Nicolas Cage photos (in both regular and crazy).

Weill continues, “We had been given a great and terrible power.  For a moment we contemplated responsibility, then gleefully tossed it aside in favor of posting pictures of cats.”

The culprit, ultimately, was a poorly managed listserv.  Apologies were made, lists updated, all ended well.

As you go about your daily email today, take a little extra caution around that “reply all” button.  You never know what havoc you may wreak.

Share your funny / tragic “reply all” story!

The Curse of Knowledge

Here is a great little experiment for you to try on your next lunch break:

Think of a popular song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday” or your national anthem.  Without revealing the name of your song, try to tap out the rhythm of the song while someone else listens and guesses it.

It’s harder than it would seem because of ….(cue dramatic music and thunder clap)… The Curse of Knowledge.  You cannot tap the rhythm of the song without hearing the song in your mind, and it’s extraordinary difficult to believe that your listener doesn’t inherently share this “insider knowledge”.  Once you have that knowledge you can’t “un-know” it any easier than you can un-ring a bell.

Go ahead.   Give it a try.  See if you can tap “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without hearing it in your mind.  While you’re sitting there, enjoying the full ensemble, tapping merrily away, you’re likely wondering why it’s taking your dimwitted listener so long to figure it out.

But your listener isn’t dimwitted.  He simply doesn’t have the same “insider information” that you do.  From his vantage point, he’s listening to random tapping that might as well have come from pecking chickens.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned her PhD. from Stanford University with this very experiment.  She took it to the next level by requiring the “Tappers” to estimate how often they believed they could get their message across.  They estimated that the Listeners would accurately guess their songs 50% of the time (1 in 2).  The actual success rate was 2.5% (1 in 40).

How does this apply to you?

Are you ever frustrated when your employees, teammates, or managers don’t “get” your ideas (or message)?  Perhaps, you — like the Tappers (like all of us, really)– inherently assume that some parts of your idea are obvious.  Once you “know” something, it is difficult to imagine what it was like to not know it.  You cannot imagine what it is like for the tappers to hear the tapping in isolation, without the benefit of hearing the song in their head.  You are “cursed”.

Practical Steps to Thwart the Curse

  1. Keep it Simple.  Begin with the basics, and add detail as the idea takes hold.
  2. Step out of your head.  Knowing that you hear the full score and your listener doesn’t can help you to create a more concrete message that is more fully understood.
  3. Be patient.  Ask your listener what additional information they need.  By working together, you can both eventually “sing the same song”.

Did you try it?  How did it go?

Newsflash: Sarcasm hard to Communicate Electronically

There’s a study for everything. Psychologist Justin Kruger, PhD, and Nicolas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago have published their results (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, Nov. 5) that illustrate how sarcasm isn’t easily communicated electronically.   Is there any wonder in this result?  Without that eye-roll, verbal emphasis, pause, or wink, sarcastic remarks often fall short of their intended mark.

Krurger and Epley find that people overestimate both their ability to effectively communicate their intended tone in an email message and their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages written by others (whether funny, sarcastic, or serious).

Why?  The disconnect has been attributed to egocentrism — when people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how others will interpret them.

But this isn’t about you.  Right?  You get it.  Others could use the help, but you – you’re funny, clever, and your co-workers and friends “get” your snark.

Unfortunately, not at often as you think.

In the initial part of the study, participants sent messages via voice recording and email.  The speakers and writers each anticipated a 78% success rate in effectively communicating their designated messages.  The participants recording their messages were close — 75% of their messages were received as expected.  But only 56% of the email messages were correctly received. That’s little better than half!!

Wait!  It gets better — the receivers of said messages anticipated a 90% accuracy rate.

Wow.  That’s a lot of unmerited confidence on both sides.

Inspired by previous research by psychologist Elizabeth Newton, PhD., Kruger developed additional experiments to delve deeper into the social phenomenon of egocentrism and hypothesized that the sender assumed that the receiver had the same understanding of intentions, motivations, and information.

In 1990, Newton tested the ability to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and predict listeners’ ability to guess the song.  Tappers predicted a 50% success rate.  Success rate was actually 2.5%.

Reason being, according to Kruger, is that tappers “hear” the full, complete, song in their minds as they tap, but listeners hear only the random tapping.

“It’s impossible not to hear the song as you’re tapping away,” says Kruger. “So you have a hard time separating yourself from your own perspective and realizing how impoverished the listeners’ data really are.”

Comparatively, email writers “hear” their intended tone while forgetting that recipients don’t have access to all that extra information.

Kruger and Epley repeated their first experiments, but this time the email writers were required to read their messages aloud before sending.  Half of the writers read their messages with the intended tone, the other half assumed an opposing tone —  sarcastic tone for a serious message, or a serious tone for a sarcastic one.  Epley explains that the point was to force participants to step outside of their own perspective and to negate some of the egocentric impact.

It worked.  Participants who read their messages as intended still over-estimated the recipients’ ability to accurately interpret the message, but those that read their message in an opposing tone no longer did.

How can this help you?

Anyone who has ever been asked if they really meant something they said in an email that they thought was clearly funny or sarcastic, can attest to the unintended consequences of misunderstood tone.

When composing an email that contains emotional content, read it out loud.  Read it in various tones of voice.  Remind yourself that there is roughly a 50% chance of being misunderstood.  Ask yourself if this is a message better delivered over the phone or in person.

Do you have a great story about unintended consequences of an email that you or someone you know sent?  We’d love to hear it.