There has been a lot of talk about effective communication in my day-to-day lately. At work I have set goals to work on improving how I communicate with coworkers and superiors. On-line I see talk in communities about how to effectively conduct discussions and dialog. In all of this it seems that being able to talk about something, convince someone, or even disseminate information can be an interesting and challenging thing.

What makes this so dang hard??

What is it that you want to accomplish when you open a dialog with someone? Why do you reply to a post on a forum? When you send an email reply to someone asking for your professional opinion what do you hope to achieve? Simple.

You want to be heard. You hope you have something useful to contribute to the conversation. You may even want to convince someone to see things from your perspective.

But what happens when we engage in a dialog or try to convince someone of some thing? The other party has to listen. This is where things get tricky. When you begin listening to someone else’s opinion, or read that email reply or forum response, you are going to frame what is said based on a few factors.

  • Context of the conversation
  • Your own experiences related to the subject
  • Trigger words/phrases will come into play

When engaging in dialog of any form what you say or write will be heard and read by someone who will apply their own experiences within what they perceive the context to be. Couple this with the chance of triggers and one must be careful. For example let’s say that someone is asking for help on a subject and they post this in a forum. I open this forum thread and start to read. Immediately I start to build up a context for this dialog. This context will be affected by previous experiences or trigger words and phrases. Let’s say that the forum post looks something like this.

Help! I cannot find the answer to my question, and it just doesn't work! What do I do?

Perhaps in the past I have had bad experiences with helping people who never bother to help themselves. Maybe these people never read the manual, even though there may have been great resources available for them to help themselves! Immediately I might start to frame this new dialog with that context, and start to apply my previous bad experiences to this conversation. My response might look like this.

Ya know, a quick Stack Overflow search found it in 30 seconds. There is documentation, RTFM!

What is wrong with my response? Technically it is accurate. A quick search may indeed find that there is awesome documentation to this question. Perhaps the poster should have indeed checked around for said documentation. So why is this response not the best strategy?

My response is retaliatory. I am aggressive due to previous experiences. The poster used trigger phrases that made me think of negative experiences. My response, in turn, will be a bad experience for the poster.

I am not tailoring my response for my audience in a way that will best reach them.

He is the problem. My audience, the poster, may not get the real intent of the message because I did not consider the best way to communicate what I want them to hear. They may not even get the intent of my message because at this point I am not speaking in a way that would cause them to positively listen and grok what I’m saying. How could I have said this differently? How about something like this?

Hi. I'm sorry to hear you are having trouble. What techniques have you tried so far? I notice that there are some great examples in the documentation that might address your specific problem.

This response does a couple of things. It first empathizes with the poster. Their post seems to indicate that they may have searched a bit, but they are frustrated. Secondly by asking what they have tried so far I am trying to politely ask the poster to talk more to what they have done. And if they haven’t tried anything themselves this is a gentle nudge to do so. Finally I point out that the documentation has things in it that might help their problem, which reminds them of the super-awesome-cool documentation that somebody took a lot of pain to write.

Once upon a time my favorite response to emails that asked what I thought to be stupid questions was No. I’ve started learning over the last few years that this approach alienated more often than it helped, causing people to not really hear the intent of my message. It also turned me on to the possibility that I wasn’t really hearing what they had to say as well, and that I might be missing something! Perhaps the next time you feel like laying down the hammer in an email, forum post, or even face-to-face conversation, stop and think about your audience. What is going to be most effective in communicating? I know I am continually trying to improve this myself.

Blog Logo

Adam Presley




Adam Presley's blog

Back to Overview