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TECH TALK: Communication part 2—What to do about it

Continuing his discussion of the current communications environment, Howard points out that it's not the act that you can comunicate that matters but whether you can communicate well and effectively.

Editor’s note: Besides following developments in tech, our author is also a musical composer (Juilliard-trained). He has provided a musical composition for you to listen to while reading this column. This piece is called “Learning Sand MKI Tremo.”

Last week’s column exposed several communication pitfalls. As I mentioned then, we need to determine what we say to whom, why, and how.

The first step in good communication is to know something about the person you are trying to communicate with. Before you worry about batch processing groups of people, focus on a single person. In our current fast-paced world, it might seem like a luxury to take the time to learn about the other person. We are often not as able to say what we mean as we think we are. When you initially prompt an AI with a question or a request, you frequently get back unsatisfactory responses. With practice, over time, you get better at providing good prompts. The same is true about human-to-human communication. The place to begin is by becoming clear about what you are saying and who you are saying it to. If you have something to say, you are the one who has to take responsibility for the message being delivered, not the other person or the other large language model.

Let’s take this into the digital domain. Have you ever answered a short one-sentence email with an entire page? Perhaps you thought you were answering the question that should have been asked. It hardly ever works. In general, the person will not get the more significant answer until later, perhaps much later. Hopefully, over time, you will learn how to communicate better with those persons and those AIs you habitually communicate with.

But what happens when you are in a group, and you know that not everyone in this group needs to get the same answer? This is the norm, not the exception. This is why one-on-one, in-person communication tends to work best.

Except for simple transactional transfers of information like “see you in ten minutes,” typing with your thumbs instead of having a conversation seems far less helpful to me. The most important things we need to communicate are not necessarily transactional ones. For one, the tone of a person’s voice can tell me volumes about their state and level of agreement. And if you are in person and can see their body language, this provides another gigantic pile of information.

This image was created by Howard Lieberman with the assistance of DALL-E-2, an AI software program.

Thirdly, there is the issue of parallel processing. Can you do more than one thing at the same time? This is one reason Zoom is so helpful. But even in Zoom, there are many possible layers, including private direct chats, breakout rooms, and more.

We have an enormous number of communication options available to us. You have to ask yourself if you are taking responsibility for the communication and which one is most appropriate. Some people are more comfortable with Skype than Zoom or any of the other half-dozen most popular tools. I have made it a practice for the last ten years to have all of them installed on my computers so I could use whichever one the other person is most comfortable with. It saves a lot of time, hassle, and debugging.

Also, when I am about to have a phone or Zoom meeting with someone new, I do a quick search to try to better understand who they are and what matters to them. It permits more shared vocabulary and analogies as well as enabling me to be more sensitive in the conversation.

I have even taught classes to 40 people on Zoom and called on people who I did not know because I could tell they had something they wanted to say.
The bottom line is that the way we communicate should take into account who we are communicating with and, if it’s a group, what the different needs of the individuals within the group are. The combination of links, texts, videos, sound, and documents, all being transferred at the same time amongst a group of people, can be fabulously rewarding, especially when these people know each other and are comfortable using the tools. Alternatively, it could be a tremendous train wreck when dealing with people who are not comfortable with these tools, not comfortable with each other, and not comfortable with themselves.

The highest quality communication occurs between people who are comfortable in their skins, not trying to win, but who each would like to take responsibility for the messages being transmitted and received.

A specific recommendation is that whenever setting up a video chat with a group, have everybody get on 15 minutes earlier so they can debug their setup if they have never been part of this group before. Expecting a meeting to start on time with remote participants who are inexperienced is foolish. Allowing enough time to debug the setup, spending the time to find out who you are speaking to, making sure that your head is in the right place, being sensitive, and adapting to other people’s needs all increase the likelihood of a successful two-way transmission.

This image was created by Howard Lieberman with the assistance of DALL-E-2, an AI software program.

Try hard to be flexible and adaptive, as different people have different communication preferences. Most companies standardize on one tool or another, and there are many choices besides email, chats, and video conferencing. Some companies prefer to use Slack, Microsoft Team, Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and FaceTime, and there are always new ones on the horizon.

While we are talking about preferences, it is not only communication tools we need to be aware of. It is also what file type people prefer. For example, the top four types of files that people exchange are words, images, movies, and sounds.

In terms of words, there is always text, Word, Pages, HTML, and PDF. In terms of images, there are jpg, png, bmp, tiff, gif, and PDF again. For movies, we have MOV, AVI, mp4, and AVCHD, and for sound files, MP3s, WAV, and AIFF are the leading contenders. There are differences among them in size, resolution, sample rate, bit depth, and more.

To facilitate good communication, you need to ask what people want and what they are most comfortable with. Sometimes, both parties are trying to be so adaptive that they converge on suboptimal choices. It really depends on what both of you or the group want to accomplish and which tools they are using.

Do not assume. Ask. And try to be flexible. Although different files types can be made to be compatible, when there is a deadline, and there is always a deadline, preferences become extremely important. In fact, entire industries tend to converge on particular tools and formats so that they can move more quickly and be more responsive to requested changes. There are always changes requested, so allow enough time for revisions.

People have other things going on in their lives besides what they are communicating and exchanging files with you about, so allow more time than you think is needed.

Everyone is multitasking, and everyone is multi-dimensional, and everyone has preferences. If you want to communicate effectively, all participants have to take responsibility for the transmission. This can be complicated and also thrilling, so relax and be prepared to change when the circumstances demand it.

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