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Volume 9, Issue 25;   June 24, 2009: Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
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Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog

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In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.

In the first part of this series about long-loop conversations in the context of virtual teams, we explored asking questions that can reduce the number of exchanges required to get definitive responses. In this part, we examine ways to clear the fog — the confusions, blind spots and omissions that impede our way to clarity.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier, military historian and military theorist. He is the author of On War, an influential treatise on the nature of war. The work explores the concept of friction in battle, which is now sometimes described as "the fog of war." In virtual or global business collaborations, coordination is sometimes hampered by analogous phenomena, which I refer to here as fog. The methods for addressing Clausewitzian friction might very well have analogs in the context of virtual or global teams. For more about Clausewitzian friction, see Barry D. Watts, "Clausewitzian Friction and Future War." McNair Paper 52, Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University. Washington, DC: October 1996. Photo of a lithograph of a painting by Karl Wilhelm Wach (now lost).

Understanding how fog forms and persists in the long-loop environment is helpful in itself. Here are three practices that tend to create or preserve fog.

Fear of offending others
Sometimes people withhold questions because they fear that asking them could offend others. Askers fear that their questions might seem too fundamental or too obvious. Sometimes they've asked the question before, but they weren't satisfied with the response; sometimes the asking led to tension.
Fear of self-disclosure
At times, we withhold comments or questions that could be helpful to the collaboration, but which also risk disclosing our own ignorance, shortcomings, or past errors. Unless the other collaborators raise the topic, this withholding can bar the group from exploring the issue.
Defenses and defensive attacks
When we bristle in response to others' comments, we signal that the conversation has crossed into unacceptability. If the topic is relevant to the collaboration, defensiveness and defensive attacks can prevent the collaborators from investigating relevant and important territory.

Here are four questions we can use to clear the fog, even if we're unaware of its existence.

What should I be asking you that I haven't asked yet?
The answer to this question might expose the obvious: questions you never thought to ask. But if the responder tells you that you haven't asked a question, and you feel that you have, this exchange might expose questions asked ineffectively, or the asker's misunderstanding or ignoring of a question you did ask.
Do you think I might be confused about anything? If so, what?
This question gives the responder permission to suggest that the asker might be confused. The responder might not accept the offer, but making the offer enhances the chance that the responder might surface new information.
What questions haven't you asked yet?
Responders usually Sometimes people withhold
questions because they fear
that asking them could
offend others
know that they can ask questions. But this question invites responders to focus on questions they've withheld. Those questions are often the most productive.
Are there any risks we haven't considered?
Risks that haven't been mentioned can be especially fruitful, because they often include the so-called "elephants in the room." This question gives people license to discuss those elephants.

These questions help even when you don't know you need help. They work by encouraging participants to seek unpleasant information, or to reveal information they might be withholding. But they depend for their effectiveness on a commitment by the asker not to be offended, and a commitment by the responder to be honest and forthright. Have I left anything out? First in this series  Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Teamwork Myths: I vs. We  Next Issue

For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation," Point Lookout for August 12, 2009.

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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See also Effective Communication at Work, Project Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

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