Reducing asynchronous miscommunication

Posted by Luke Thomas
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As more and more people work remotely, over time, more and more of our communication will happen asynchronously. As a quick refresher, asynchronous communication is a fancy term for, "delayed communication." It's where the message sender and receiver can communicate without the need to be present at the same exact moment in time.

While asynchronous communication is powerful, it also lacks the richness of real-time, in-person conversation. It's easy to course-correct when you can read tone and body language on the fly. When you are writing back and forth, the potential to be misunderstood can be higher.

So what do you do about it?

In the rest of this post, I'm going to outline practical tips you can implement for reducing miscommunication when communicating asynchronously. Learn from my mistakes!

Foundational advice: understand the gravitational pull of the channel you are using

There are many channels you can use to communicate asynchronously at work. You could use email, workplace chat, or collaborate in a Google doc. Each of these mediums encourages a different way of communicating - sometimes the differences are subtle.

For example, workplace chat like Slack and Microsoft Teams are built for quick-fire back and forth conversations. While useful at times, this can also encourage responses that aren't very thoughtful and/or well-formatted. So you may run into trouble like this.

Compare and contrast this to commenting inside a Google document. There's the context of the document, and your comment is on a specific aspect of the overall message. This is very different than a Slack message.

The key here is to understand that each channel has a gravitational pull that can be helpful (and harmful) at times. I have sent quick-fire Slack messages that lacked thought before. Each tool has a natural pull that needs a counterbalance. 

Tip #1: Wait to respond

Imagine being put on the spot in a meeting. Your boss just threw you a curveball and you have no idea what to say. You quickly respond in the worst way possible.

Has this ever happened to to you?

A major benefit of async communication is that you don't need to respond right away. Use this to your advantage! Process the message, calm nerves, and formulate a good response.

I can't tell you how many times I've run into trouble by quickly responding to a message.

Tip #2: Seek clarification

This is another simple tip, but ask for clarification. This helps you establish common ground with the other person, which reduces miscommunication. Think of a conversation like someone building a home, brick by brick. Each brick presents a new opportunity to miscommunicate, even though the rest of the foundation has been laid.

You may be on the same page in 95% of the conversation, but 5% may need further clarification. It can't hurt to ask someone to clarify their position. Specifically, you could ask:

  • Can you clarify what you mean when you say, "______________?"

You may need to pull out the specific piece from a paragraph or longer message. This helps the other person pinpoint the area that needs further discussion.

Tip #3: Use emojis and gifs

Research indicates that people process emojis in a similar way to a facial reactions, which is crazy cool. This means that you can pack some of the richness of a face-to-face conversation into a text-based format. It's like giving your written communication a super-power. 

For many years, I thought emojis were stupid and for the cool kids. It turns out, it's a wonderful way to level-up asynchronous communication, especially if it's something that could be misinterpreted.

Tip #4: Give people the benefit of the doubt

You should also assume positive intent. In other words, you should approach communication from a mindset of humility, recognizing that the other person didn't intentionally try to hurt or harm you.

This takes a lot of effort. I would argue that the best way to do this is by getting to know the people that you work with on a more personal level. Learn what they like to do outside of work. Learn a bit more about their family. This helps you humanize the person you are communicating with, so you don't feel like you are talking to a soul-less robot.

Tip #5: Swap the communication channel

This may be my most important piece of advice - written communication has limitations, the sooner you recognize this, the better. Consider swapping to a richer format like a video call if you feel like you are on a different page.

The simple act of moving the conversation to a richer format can help you quickly resolve issues because you are using a different set of tools to establish common ground. This will also help you become more efficient and spend less of your time sending messages back on Slack, Teams, or email.

Tip #6: Add structure/formatting to your message

This next tip is quite basic, but consider formatting your message and adding structure, especially if the message is long. For example, break up your thoughts into paragraphs. Consider summarizing your key points at the beginning or end of the message. Use bullet points.

While this step is simple, it's easy to forget the value of structured thinking and writing. Most people don't do this.

Tip #7: Set expectations with a communication handbook

Each person has different norms and expectations when it comes to communication. Some people are very thoughtful and prefer written communication. Others will quickly blast off a message and would rather jump on the phone by default.

I would argue there's no right answer here. The key is to set expectations and to explain that you naturally gravitate towards a particular approach. There are two tools that can help set expectations:

The key is that this is written down somewhere and is easily accessible by others. If it doesn't persist, it doesn't exist.

Wrapping up

These tips are based on many years of personal trial and error. The workplace of the future will involve more and more asynchronous communication. If you can master this approach, you will be successful at working with others.

Because as Marshall McLuhan says, the medium is the message.

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