04 December 2016

How Bruno Kahne's "12 Deaf-Tips" relate to online communication

I recently attended the PMI UK chapter's annual Synergy event in London.  
One of the guest speakers was Bruno Kahne, responsible for Leadership Development and Culture Change at Airbus Group Leadership Academy.
Bruno presented his recent book titled "Deaf-Tips - Powerful Communication": Twelve lessons from the Deaf world to improve your communication in your personal, social, and professional life.

Bruno is a great speaker and got the whole audience engaged rapidly.  His 12 tips concern face-to-face communication as this is the context he did extensive research comparing teams of deaf people and teams of hearing people.  The deaf teams always beating the hearing ones at the same tasks requiring good collaboration.

While I was listening to Bruno, I started thinking if his 12 tips would apply to online communication as well.  I decided to buy his book and challenge myself at adapting his tips to the online context. You will find below how I succeeded in this challenge.  I should point out that I have contacted Bruno to ask for his feedback before publishing this post.  He sent it to some of his deaf collaborators and they confirmed that these adaptations do relate to the way they communicate online.

The online communication I am referring to are the social media platform – like Facebook and LinkedIn on the web or Yammer  and Jive in the organisation.  This type of communication is typically:
·         Asynchronous (not real time with a time lag between a question and a response)
·         Many to many (the same comment can be shared by many – ie. use of the ‘Like’ function)
·         Involving a combination of relations and strangers (people not knowing one another personally)

I have re-sorted Bruno's tips from the most relevant to online communication to the one that required more adaptation, but kept the numbering used in the book:

Deaf Tip No 05: Be simple and precise.     
<<When Deaf people communicate, they are both simple and precise at the same time.  [..] When Hearing people try to be simple, they are automatically vague.  And when they try to be precise, they suddenly become complex.>>  

In today’s increasingly connected world, it is essential to remain simple while not losing valuable information.  We can do this by keeping our online messages (sms, emails, social media posts) simple, to the point, avoiding unnecessary words.

Being precise in your descriptions or explanations is nearly as important to avoid unnecessary lengthy exchanges for you to give successively more information.  Worse still if by not being precise, you lead the readers on the “wrong path” without being asked to clarify.  This will affect your online reputation and make others being more wary of your contributions.

Deaf Tip No 03: Put yourself in the other’s shoes.

This tip applies fully in an online context.  In fact, with regards to the choice of words it applies even more as you don’t have the luxury of the others’ body language to warn you that they do not understand your point.  Furthermore, online social communication is typically to be read by numerous people, many of whom you don’t know personally, so you cannot adapt your language to all of them.  Therefore, it is useful to think about how others will read and understand what you write online, before you press

Avoiding technical language and acronyms, placing words in the right order, and avoiding unnecessary lengthy posts are all very good advice for online communication.
Finally, Postponing judgment of course fully applies when reading other’s initial comments/replies.

Deaf Tip No 07: Dare to ask questions.

Many will argue (including myself) that asking questions is one of the raison d’être of any online collaboration tool. Most online discussions either start with a question or start with an assertion which calls for others to ask questions.
About the three conditions – Precision, Honesty and Space - for asking the right question, this is how they more specifically apply to online communication:
Precision: It is even more important in an asynchronous communication where hours or even days can laps between a question and its first answer!
Honesty: Again, posting questions and responses on a medium that will retain them for a very long time after you wrote them (probably longer than the time it will take you to forget writing them) it is a very good advice to be honest with yourself and with the others you are collaborating with.  Don’t take the risk of an old lie to come back and bite you!
Space: Online this means to not systematically provide an answer to your own question.  Don’t show off.  Instead give others a chance to respond first and build on their answers.

Deaf Tip No 09: Do you see what I say?

The use of visual supports such as infographics and “visual words” fully applies online.  An online collaboration environment is also very well suited for using the story telling technique.

Deaf Tip No 06: Don’t say don’t.

Our brain is wired to remembering positive images/messages.  Using negative phrases will tend to let others remember the opposite to the point we are trying to make.  So in any discussions, including online ones, we should use positive sentences.  For instance, in online discussions, avoid the use of the negative word ‘but’ and use ‘and’ instead which will encourage more responses from the other participants.

Deaf Tip No 01: Prepare to be prepared

Preparing to be prepared for online communication consist of doing the following before engaging: 

  • “Looking around”/assessing everything you can gather from the context of the discussion you are about to engage with
  •   Reading what others have written, assess who the participants are (or tend to be if there are many of them).  
  • Being clear on the purpose of the group/Community of Practice/Space in which you are intending to engage with (you could read some of the previous discussions involving the same people to get a better feel for the topics that are expected here, how people are “behaving” and the dominant style of writing).

We must keep an open mind and not being too quick at judging/interpreting others’ point of views.
We need to read on a regular basis what others are writing online which will give us the ability to anticipate what others would respond to our own contributions

Deaf Tip No 04: Be sequential.

In the asynchronous context of an online social media discussion, you do not run the risk of participants talking at the same time or someone starting to respond while someone is still talking.   However, it is frequent for multiple threads – sub-threads - to occur within one discussion.  This often causes confusion among participants, especially with the new entrants who have not taken part from the start:
  •  It gets increasingly difficult to follow the various threads simultaneously and always understand who responds to whom
  •  When you reply to a “sub-thread”, you have this annoying feeling that you are no longer addressing all the participants but only the ones who will care to follow this thread
  •  Sub-threads often diverge so much from the discussion’s original topic that you end up with very different topics being addressed within the same discussion.

Some tools do allow to visually differentiate the “sub-threads” (such as indentations) in order to see who is responding to whom.  But this workaround only partially address the first issue above and potentially exacerbates the other two.

Being sequential online means avoiding sub-threads.  You can do this by adopting these two simple behaviours:
  • If a discussion inspires you to ask a related but clearly different question than the one that started this discussion, start a new discussion with your question.  If you want to relate to the first discussion, you can explicitly refer to it by using a hotlink.  You can also tag the specific participants whom you would like to see contributing to your new discussion.
  • If you notice a sub-thread within a discussion, you should post a reply suggesting to the contributors that this topic would seem to warrant a new dedicated discussion.   You might be surprise to see how often this triggers the right behaviour from the person who really want to put across his/her point of view on this divergent topic.

Being sequential online also means making sure to fully understand others point of views before contributing ourselves.  We can do this by asking “clarifying/confirming” questions.  Each question should be preceded by a relevant quote from the other person you are questioning – so literally copy/pasting the sentence(s) that you are asking to clarify/confirm. 

Deaf Tip No 08: Focus on the right thing.

In an online context, focusing on the meaning fully applies. 
Focusing on the others means being conscious of our filters and put them aside while trying to understand other’s contributions. 
Focusing on here and now applies also: it means avoiding other distractions when writing a question or a response, and rereading what we wrote before sending.

Deaf Tip No 12: Say what you think.

Saying what you think online in a shared “public” environment is fine when it is not about someone in particular.  When you are not face-to-face with the person and in addition communicating asynchronously, the risk of being misunderstood is greater.  Furthermore, the arguments given for being honest in Tip No 7 are relevant here too.

However, how saying what you think applies online is by being as factual as possible, as descriptive as possible (but again not personal).  If you express an opinion, belief, then make that clear, and then make your point completely, don’t stop half-way as it will likely backfire: It would confuse/mislead others, leading the discussion on a wrong path, requiring from you a lot of effort to recover and clarify.  
An important relevant point about online communication: Some readers and contributors of an online discussion might not come back to read your late clarification, and will keep this wrong interpretation of your points.

Deaf Tip No 11: Get in Touch.

This was at first the hardest tip to translate to an online communication context. 
“Being touched” by someone has two meanings: The physical one and the social one when someone does/says something really nice about you.

So “touching” online can be about not missing an occasion to please someone, to help out and ask nothing in return, to congratulate, to praise, recognizing someone’s efforts/successes/performance.

Deaf Tip No 02: Read Body Language.

“Body language” reading has literal relevance in a video conference.    
In the context of mostly text-based online asynchronous communication, body language translates as being always conscious that what people write is not necessarily what they truly mean or even believe.  In doubt, reach out to the other person directly (via email, or better Instant Messaging, or even better via telephone or better still face-to-face) to get clarification.

Reading words like we can read muscle contractions: color, high capitals, fonts, short/long sentences, quickly or carefully written sentences, order of words, repeated words etc…

Deaf Tip No 10: Listen in Technicolor.

Active listening translates online into active reading.  
Active reading in a social media context is about not limiting yourself in reading a given discussion thread (especially if you intend to contribute) but to refer to other relevant “parallel” discussions, on the same forum or others.  Relevant means “on the same topic” and/or “similar topic” and/or “involving most or all of the same participants.

I addition, active reading requires the following behaviours:
  • Focus on the others’ posts by avoiding distracting “noise” around you and on your device’s screen, and by focusing on getting the true meaning
  •  Postponing judgment (ask questions first)
  •  Avoiding parallel mental activities
  • Truly connect with others (use humour, praises, references to previous relevant discussions) and collaborate (it is not about scoring points but about “adding a piece to a puzzle”).


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