Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 25;   June 24, 2009: Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog

Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog

by

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) courtesy Wikipedia.

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

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!

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenLaeumfQoXTmSvgPdner@ChacnlWnsZsXJYQeZyCSoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A happy dogWhy Dogs Wag Their Tails
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod BlagojevichMasked Messages
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
A Roman coin from the reign of Marcus Cocceius NervaThe Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: I
In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
Historic handshake in Porvoo Finland in 2007The Ups and Downs of American Handshakes: II
Where the handshake is a customary business greeting, it's possible to offend accidentally. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for handshakes in the USA.
The cockpit of an A340 Airbus airlinerThe Limits of Status Reports: II
We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A shark of unspecified speciesComing May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
Jump ball in a game of basketballAnd on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrengJFfxjdWICRqrYBiner@ChacuBbESpxrvXaYZqcooCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.