Becoming Better Communicators

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As designers, we pride ourselves on being great communicators. We go to extreme lengths to communicate with users in a language they understand, enabling them to engage with our messages and feel like they’re part of a story we built just for them. Yet, we do a poor job of communicating with those whom our work requires us to talk to every day—and we need to, and can, get better at it.

In fact, as much as we consider ourselves designers, significant parts of our working hours are actually spent communicating with one another. At least, mine are. Here’s a list of tasks I perform on a typical workday:

Log onto IRC (the way people at Canonical—the company behind the Linux operating system Ubuntu—communicate with anyone who’s on the clock) and greet my colleagues.

Check my e-mail; reply to some, save some to deal with later.

Log onto Basecamp; check my to-dos, update some notes, and comment on a hot thread.

Make a quick phone call to my manager to get the daily update and clarify priorities.

Log onto Onotate, a tool we use to provide feedback on designs and wireframes; read feedback I received on my designs and provide feedback on others’.

Do a bit of designing based on feedback and planned tasks; upload them again for quick reviewing.

Meet with my team via Google Hangout to discuss a particular ongoing project.

Reply to the e-mails I left for later.

Do some more designing.

Sound familiar? Whatever your specific situation, I’d bet much of your days are spent communicating with other people, too: talking, writing, being silent, smiling, frowning, asking, answering, listening, and, at worst, yelling.

Good communication skills are what allow us to sell our work, justify our decisions, and stand behind our positions. This (along with doing good work) is how we gain the trust and respect of colleagues, bosses, and clients—something every design professional aspires to. And it’s why all these little pieces of communication we constantly deliver are so important.

So what’s so hard about communication, and how can we get better at it?

Digital communication

We hate our inbox, but don’t know what we’d do without it. We have chats on Skype. We have back-and-forth conversations on Basecamp. But most of these communication channels don’t really satisfy us, make us feel better, or dissipate our concerns. On the contrary, they often seem to make us even more anxious about work. Why is that?

People need human contact and interaction to flourish.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls the interactions that makes us happier “human moments”—being in the physical presence of someone and having her emotional and intellectual attention—and argues that not having enough of them can lead to oversensitivity, self doubt, rudeness, and worry.

Why? Because digital communication makes us miss all the benefits that come from communicating to while being in someone’s physical presence:

This sounds incredibly familiar. All you need to do is think of Twitter.

Hallowell explains how the human moment increases the release of hormones that promote trust and bonding, which are at lower levels when you’re not in the presence of another person. These hormones make us less prone to worrying or overreacting.

Digital communication removes all the cues that mitigate worry. As more and more people work like I do, alone from home offices, without much face-to-face interaction, it’s important that we’re aware of this both in ourselves and others.

So what can we do about it?

One answer comes from 37signals, which hires great talent regardless of geography and encourages others to do the same. In their bookRework, founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson report that meeting in person is important for remote teams.2

I work remotely from my home in Belfast, but I meet with the rest of my team in our main offices in London at least once a month. Then, not only do we have lots of meetings and...
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