Earth to space station, do you copy?

The art of communicating effectively in virtual teams

When your goal is to understand and be understood so a problem can be collaboratively solved, there’s a certain something about being human that makes it happen. We are social animals. And social animals succeed when they find effective ways to navigate the communication barriers. Fortunately this drive to succeed comes naturally to most of us. The rest can be learned.

At IndyRise, the inability to be co-located with our team members has never been a hindrance to communicating effectively. We find ourselves easily climbing over communication barriers, overcoming technology issues and finding ways to exchange information despite all odds. And we’d love to share what we do that makes this inherently possible.

Trust & empathy

When you’re a startup, you can’t afford slack. Which means as a team, you must bring mutually exclusive expertise to the table. When you’re a new team, connected with each other through at least one mutual acquaintance, this is biggest competitive advantage to be had. It forces you to start with trust. We’d be fools to imagine that trust happens from day one. But it has a ripple effect. If you trust the mutual acquaintance, you tend to trust their network and so on. And as you begin to work with each other, that trust is reinforced. We’ve had lots of practice testing this hypothesis. And it works. Surrounding yourself with people in your network is the most effective way to hit the ground running with new teams.

Empathy is an underrated quality. But successful people are necessarily empathetic. If you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how can you succeed? And empathy is the ONE quality that is absolutely essential. Anything else that is missing can be learned. Empathy drives you to over-communicate. Empathy resolves conflict before it happens. Empathy encourages listening.

Active listening

Speaking of listening, we’ve all heard of the difference between hearing and listening, right? But did you know that active listening is a tangible technique that can be learned?

Coined by Thomas Gordon (a clinical psychologist and an expert on communications and conflict resolution) in the 1960s, active listening is a technique which aims at comprehension (a shared meaning between parties in a communication transaction) by retention (using techniques like note-taking or repeating back what you’ve heard to lessen the forgetting curve) and response (turning the normally passive process of listening into an active interaction). While this theory and practice were developed for in-person interactions and also took inspiration from body language and other non-verbal cues, they can be quite effectively used in virtual or telephonic conversations as well.

Some useful skills that promote active listening are:

  • Note-taking and paraphrasing
  • Keeping conversations we-oriented instead of me-oriented
  • Being present (avoid multi-tasking)
  • Keeping conversations objective and as unemotional as possible
  • Being empathetic and genuinely interested in the conversations

Be precise, objective and concise

Do you sometimes like to use unusual words, colloquialisms and maybe even flowery language (yikes!) to stand out? Don’t. Not if you’re trying to be understood.

While it maybe fun to practice new vocabulary words among friends to impress them, unusual words, jargon and acronyms hinder comprehension. If you are on a conference call (video or otherwise), it is best to keep your sentences short and your words simple. Complex ideas especially benefit from an effort to condense and eliminate unnecessary words. Your teams will thank you for it!

It is always good practice to keep emotions out of the language you use at work. It is especially critical when you communicate with teams that are not co-located. Without the added advantage of body language, emotion-laden speech is difficult to comprehend. And team dynamics can quickly deteriorate into distrust. If a conflict needs to be resolved, defer the conversation until you can do it 1-on-1. Avoid using text or chat. Pick up the phone and call the person. It is the next best thing to an in-person conversation. And if emotions are running high, use a mutually trusted moderator. If you must send an email - give the receiver an opportunity to respond. Otherwise it sounds like a directive, and is bad mojo if you want to continue working with the person.

Technology

The primary rule we follow in our virtual team meetings is this: if you can show me, instead of telling me, do it quick! We use Skype a lot. The ‘share screen’ and group chat features are our favorites. Sharing a website or a desktop application, if you’re on a Mac or a PC is easy. But we often deal with mobile apps. Our favorite tool to share mobile screens is the Reflector 2 app by AirSquirrels.

We love to whiteboard and use mind maps. Incidentally, mind mapping is really useful as a note-taking tool. It lets you scribble your notes in multiple directions as opposed to linear (structured) writing. Our go-to tool for this is RealTimeBoard. Our clients love it too!

Lately we’ve been using Basecamp frequently to document project happenings and assigning to-dos between the client and the team. Its really useful, especially if you hate having to figure out which folder you put a document under. We still use Google Drive and Google Docs pretty exclusively for doc management, but Basecamp gives us an easier way to deliver that information.

How do you navigate the world of communicating to be understood in virtual teams? Do you have any tricks up your sleeve to share?