Much collaboration today takes place between people who are unable to converse freely or conveniently. Because people are so busy, and so often separated by multiple time zones, the time required for a response to a question can be very frustrating. This is the long-loop conversational environment. Even a simple question can yield only another question in response. For instance, the first response to "When do you think you'll finish planting the rose bed?" might be, "Which rose bed do you mean?"
The trouble arises because the customary patterns of real time conversation are incompatible with the long-loop environment. Here are some effective tactics for asking questions in the long-loop environment.
- Be ridiculously specific
- Specificity reduces the likelihood that the responder will need further clarification. Avoid pronouns and generic terms such as "the rose bed" — instead, say, "Rose bed 3G on the south lawn."
- But specificity entails risk. For instance, in the question above, if the asker meant to type "3G" but accidentally typed "3H," specificity would have resulted in at least one otherwise unnecessary loop traversal. Specific questions must be accurate. Proofread them twice.
- Ask structured compound questions
- In a real time conversation we can ask a series of questions, using each response to frame the next question. That approach is fastest in the real time environment because it avoids the clutter of unnecessary or poorly framed questions. But in the long-loop environment it can be maddeningly slow.
- A structured compound question is actually a set of related questions, connected by a logical framework. An example: "If the answer to A is X, then I would ask B. If the answer to A is Y, then I would ask C. If the answer to A is anything else, then I would ask D." Asking structured compound questions can reduce the number of loop traversals.
- Explain why you need to know
- If you're Trouble arises because the customary
patterns of real time conversation
are incompatible with the
long-loop environmentasking a question, describe in detail the consequences of not knowing the answer. Motivate your correspondent to respond fully, accurately, and soon.
- When the responder knows why you're asking, a wonderful thing sometimes happens. Suppose the asker is confused about something, and suppose that the asker's explanation of the need for the answer exposes that confusion. The responder might then be able to untangle the confusion. The time saved in this way might be far more than one or two loop traversals. The confusion avoided might have been much, much more expensive.
Discuss these methods with your correspondents before using them. Questions like these can seem strange, or even insulting, to anyone who hasn't seen their like before. And disrupted relationships can be even more costly than a few loop traversals. Next in this series Top Next Issue
For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, see "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation," Point Lookout for August 12, 2009.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: III
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that.
Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here
are some of their techniques.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation
- In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop
response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding,
toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
- Virtual Meetings: Indicators of Inattention
- If you've ever led a virtual meeting, you're probably familiar with the feeling that some attendees
are doing something else. Here are some indicators of inattention.
- Some Truths About Lies: III
- Detecting lies by someone intent on misrepresentation is an important skill for executives, managers,
project managers, and just about anyone involved in knowledge-oriented organizations. Here's Part III
of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
- Anticipate Counter-Communication
- Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided
by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
- And on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
- Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.