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Real-time vs Asynchronous Communication

Communication is an essential part of our lives. And there are two ways of communicating: in real-time and asynchronously.

Are you using both effectively?

How do you communicate?

Most people is not aware of how they are communicating.

If you are having an in-person conversation, you expect to get a reply as soon as you finish your sentence. If you send an email, you are aware that it may take hours or even days to get a response. Those are clear examples of real-time and asynchronous communication.

But what about everything else? If you are having an online conversation, do you expect the other person to reply instantly? If you call someone with your phone, do you expect them to drop whatever they are doing and attend to your request?

I'm sure everyone has experienced at some point being fully immersed in an online conversation just to have the other person take minutes to reply.

Conversely, everyone has also experienced being immersed in any activity just to be interrupted by a phone call.

We've come to accept these situations as the way things are, but there is a better way.

In this post I will introduce many ideas that are applicable both to professional and personal contexts. But this piece will be focused on how to improve communication at work.

Real-time communication

In the workplace, real-time is the defacto standard of communicating. The only thing that is not expected to be real-time are emails, but even those are expected to be attended ASAP sometimes.

I get why people think this always-on aptitude is good for collaboration. But, like the guys at Basecamp say, interruption is not collaboration.

It's true that the fastest way to solve a question is to ask someone who already knows the answer. But maybe it's not the best way. Sometimes, the question shouldn't have been asked in the first place.

Whenever we encounter a problem, our tendency is to ask for help right away. There are two reasons why this isn't optimal.

First, we don't work through the problem ourselves, and just getting the answer doesn't teach us as much as digging into it.

And second, we're probably interrupting someone else's work. Barring the fact that interrupting a co-worker is rude and annoying, context switching is expensive. What I prefer to do instead is send an asynchronous message they'll be able to answer at their discretion. Many times they'll reply instantly anyway, but at least it's them who manage their focus and I am not imposing my urgency upon them.

Doing this will also give our more knowledgeable co-workers an opportunity to share their experience with us. Instead of giving a quick answer and get back to work, they can elaborate on how they see the problem and teach us a thing or two. Which brings me to my next point.

Asynchronous communication

One of the most important things that asynchronous communication allows is the ability to think things through. Most of the time, saying the first thing that comes to mind is not a great idea. I love this piece from Derek Sivers where he talks about this: I'm a very slow thinker.

Another often overlooked aspect of asynchronous communication is that most of the time it leaves a record. Meaning that it's easy for anyone to re-read in order to better understand it. And that person can be your future self. A lot of information is lost over verbal communication, which makes for redundant conversations and wasted time.

And finally, the key factor that asynchronous communication enables is focus. It will depend on your type of work, but you most likely benefit from entering a flow state (most commonly called being in the zone).

One common excuse to resort to real-time communication and interrupting others is being blocked. I like a term I learned from the guys at X-Team called being unblockable. If you really need someone else's involvement to keep working, there are probably worse organizational problems to be worried about.

Balancing both

It may seem like I'm bashing real-time communication a lot. But that's because it's usually what comes out naturally, and we need to make an effort to compensate for that tendency. Of course, there are also benefits to real-time communication; emotions and human connection are best created with real-time conversation. So the art is in using both.

Real-time communication is great when it's necessary to exchange information with a rapid feedback loop. Asynchronous communication is better for deep work and to transmit information clearly.

In order to get more specific, here's some things I've found that can be used to improve your communication:

Implement office hours

Instead of being always on, you can achieve the same results by having office hours. These are hours when you're available to have real-time conversations. Outside of these hours, your peers should expect asynchronous communication unless there's some urgency (which rarely happens, if ever).

This doesn't mean in those hours you're just waiting for someone to talk with; you're working all the same. But you're open to interruptions and that's why you'll schedule your tasks around that. For most people, these "office hours" are actually all working hours, and that's a mistake.

These hours are also ideal to schedule real-time communication, for example meetings.

Write down decisions and rationale

I already hinted at this before, but many times we fall into the habit of communicating decisions verbally and without any rationale. Which is prone to generate doubts, questions and more communication overhead.

I'd argue for the opposite instead, make an effort every time you communicate a decision to explain how you got to that conclusion. You'll save repeating the same thing 10 times and having it lost over verbal communication.

It doesn't mean the decision has to be final, but at least everyone's got all the background and will be on the same page.

Ping

I was hesitant on adding this one because of how much I dread the term, but the core idea is good. A ping is a message that lets you know when someone needs your help ASAP.

Doing this, interruptions are not really interruptions, as they allow the other person to finish whatever they are doing. If we combine this idea with office hours, it's a great way to start a real-time conversation.

Still, be careful not to abuse this because it can easily become obnoxious and counterproductive.

Wrapping Up

In the end, everyone is different and each person will have a different tendency on what they're more comfortable with.

I prefer a combination in a forum-like platform mixed with real-time conversations from time to time, preferably in person or video-call. Emails are cool, but they can become messy over time and not everyone can refer back to them (only the recipients). And chats are ok, but they can often get out of hand without proper organization and discipline.

I hope this served you to think more about the way we communicate. And I'd suggest that you continue by reading this other piece by Derek Sivers: Considerate communication.

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