You can apply these practices for meetings with many people, for meetings when you have people with different contexts, and for recurring and decision-making meetings. However, they are less applicable for long sessions with few people involved, who share the same context (like a Railsware BRIDGeS session) and even less for your beer talk with friends, although some tips are still universal.
But let’s start with how we, humans, perceive information.
Factors that influence how we perceive information
Whereas machines perceive information in the one and only way, humans have billions of factors that make our perception very subjective and individual. For instance, machines can’t mix up “zero” and “O.” People can.
The way we perceive information heavily depends on our backgrounds. Even if you and your colleague work in one team for many years, the exact same information can be understood differently by each of you. An obvious example would be technical and non-technical people. They have different knowledge, and if an engineer talks too technically to a manager or a manager talks too abstract to an engineer, they will go in circles till they reach some understanding (or not).
But even the same specialists perceive information differently due to their past experiences. This is why every engineer has preferences in technologies and tools, and this is why we have so many arguments about which one is better.
The current conditions also influence our understanding of the information. Here’s my personal example. When an engineer was talking about IdP on the standup (which was supposed to mean “Identity Provider”), I was lost. I just came from a meeting with HR, and we also discussed IDP, which meant “Individual Development Plan” for us, so I didn’t understand why the “Individual Development Plan” was mentioned in the context of the product. This is fun unless it leads to serious misunderstandings.
We all have our own goals that give focus, making our brains filter essential things and ignore data that doesn’t help us complete or achieve something. And I’m not talking about big life goals and the formal goals that a team has. I mean our day-to-day life and its small steps.
Sometimes we may not even realize that we are pursuing a certain goal. However, it always influences the perspective. Imagine a lead engineer works on some feature and discovers that the initial implementation plan should be changed. The lead engineer announces it on the standup.
- The manager immediately thinks of a due date change
- The DevOps thinks about how changes would impact the security
- The engineers think about how this will affect other parts of the code they are working on
Ask them to repeat what you said; everyone will have a different story, which is fine.
Basically, each of us has a very different picture of the world in our head, and the new information we obtain also adds to this picture in a different peculiar way. I often explained a problem skipping parts of information that were obvious to me, and almost always, I had to return and explain this “obvious” part because, for others, it wasn’t that obvious.
Peculiarities of the brain and memory
Another issue lies in memory itself. Our brain is not designed to store information. It’s meant to process it. This is just how evolution shaped us. We are good at making decisions, seeing and recognizing patterns, and doing creative activities, but we are awful at remembering precise data. For centuries we’ve been using tools and technology to help us store data that our brains can’t.
There’ve been many studies about how our memory works. Although it’s not fully clear yet, it’s confirmed that memory isn’t made of facts. It includes many of our assumptions and opinions of other people that we start to perceive as facts. There’s even a separate interesting phenomenon called “false memories” that explains why many individuals or even groups of people “remember” things that never happened. So next time a colleague insists that you told them something that you didn’t, don’t be surprised.
What can go wrong
Here’s a classic example of a very common misunderstanding. A CEO asks her assistant to book her a hotel room. The assistant replies with an email, “I called them. The hotel is booked.” The CEO goes on a business trip and finds out that there’s no reservation. It turns out the assistant meant that the hotel was fully booked and no rooms were left. When the assistant called the hotel, they said, “Sorry, we are booked,” so she used the same wording in her email. The CEO, on the other hand, expected the booked room and interpreted the phrase as such.
Another example is from my own experience. Some time ago, I had a long and exhausting call with a developer. I had an idea to change the process of feature deployments to review servers, and he had many objections to it. We talked and talked and couldn’t find a solution that would suit everyone. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, so I said, “let’s leave it,” meaning, “let’s leave this topic and keep things as they are.” I thought he didn’t want to cooperate, and I didn’t want to push things harder. He responded, “Okay, as you wish, let’s leave it”. And the next day, I saw that he had implemented the changes we discussed. To my surprise, he understood my response the other way around. He thought I was pushing my way and that I insisted on leaving the changes I wanted.
Sometimes people don’t understand you at all, which is not the main issue, actually. The real problem is that they don’t tell us that. Why? Well, here are a few possible reasons.
- We are embarrassed to admit that we don’t understand something. And this is a natural reaction. Some of us may think that we are not good enough, and this situation triggers fear.
- We can feel guilt. If you get distracted for a moment, you think you should have listened more carefully. This guilt often prevents us from asking questions.
- Sometimes, we may think we understand, but later on, we space out, lose track, and it’s already late to admit that we are lost. Especially if previously we showed we understood the subject.
Automatic filtering of “non-essential” data
We have all been in a situation where you are sure that you told your colleague the same information at least three times already, but next week they ask you the same questions as if they remembered nothing. Pretty annoying, right?
Typically, the issue is that we are all swamped. We have a lot of small and big things to do, so it’s easy to miss some pieces of information.
Sometimes, when we don’t understand a topic in the first place, we have nothing to remember. And the next time we need this knowledge, we ask “stupid” questions.
But the biggest problem is that we may not even try to understand or remember things that we think are unimportant. Which is pretty logical – why spend precious resources on something we don’t need? Our brain is the laziest organ. It tries to minimize its energy usage as much as possible. Whereas learning new things requires a lot of brain power. We consciously try to switch on only when the context seems essential to us.
How to be understood
Now, let’s move to the most practical part – what we can do with these challenges. Here are the tips you can use during standups, scoping sessions, demos, pairing sessions, and other meetings to improve the quality of your communication.
Set up a clear goal
Before any meeting or call, ask yourself, what is your main message? What should your colleagues or clients know about it? Sometimes we can talk too much about unrelated topics, or go too deep into unnecessary details, wasting our time and losing perspective. This is why you should:
- Stick to the point. You can start with a small talk for 2-4 minutes (ice-breaker) but then get back to the main topic. Think about what you want from your interlocutors. Do you want them to make a decision, provide input, or just be aware of something? Focus only on the required data and actions.
- Make sure the goal is valid. The goal “show that you were busy” isn’t a good one. Aim for the mutual goals of everyone. For example, a standup update “I was busy with making requested changes to PR” does not focus on a mutual goal. Rephrase it as “Implementing suggested changes for User List table. Initial solution would cause 30 seconds delay in page load if there are more than 100 users”. This clearly aligns with the mutual goal of delivering this page to the customers and explains your challenge.
- Always finish the communication by reiterating what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re asking for help after you’ve described the problem, ensure that you come back to ask for help in the areas you need.
Have a plan
It may seem that we have all the necessary information in our head and don’t need any preparation for a meeting. Sometimes it’s true, but for longer discussions, it usually isn’t. And the meetings that begin with “errrr where do we start,” and nobody has a clear answer are usually a waste of time. So, do your homework and prepare.
- Provide background to what your communication is about and set a goal on why you’re communicating it to these people (e.g., “X happened, I need your help to decide on how to do Y”)
- Lead by example. If people see that you don’t care about the topic yourself, they won’t care about it too, and you’ll be on your own. Plan the meeting and prepare the materials you’ll need to keep people’s attention.
Remember the audience
Before the meeting, think about the people you’ll be talking to and what knowledge your audience possesses. Are they marketers, developers, managers, or designers? Each different role will require a different way of presenting the information. Communicate in a language that is meaningful to them. For example, managers want to know about the pros and cons if you ask them to make a decision. A finance expert may want to know the cost. An engineer would reflect on corner cases and future development plans. And a designer would think about the usability impact.
Prepare the right level of detail depending on the people you communicate with. A client shouldn’t know all the details of your refactoring, but your colleague should. Keep in mind what info is important to them – end date, cost, impact on some metric, risks, etc. If you don’t know what’s important to them, ask!
Doze the information
Do not overload people with tons of information. The meeting is not about you and all your problems! It’s about the product or project you work on together.
There are exceptions, and sometimes job-related venting is good. If something bothers you a lot and makes you unhappy, talk about it. But if you feel this urge regularly, look to the root cause of it. Constantly venting is a bad practice.
Although it’s not about you, adding a personal touch is a good idea. Briefly mention your struggles, rants, or fun things during your work. Nobody is a robot, and these little things can help you create solid interpersonal connections with your team and grab their attention.
Make sure you are heard
If you are a presenter at the meeting expecting other participants to do something after it, it wouldn’t be superfluous to ensure everyone is on the same page. Here’s how I usually do it.
- Monitor feedback. Which I must admit is hard when everyone is on mute and without video. However, if the meeting format is closer to a monologue, I always spend a few minutes at the end to scan participants by hearing their answers and comments.
- Encourage questions. Questions are good signs, so let others openly ask them. Also, pay attention to “ah hah” or “uh huh” – these are good signs too. Use them yourself when someone else is speaking. Thus you’ll make life easier for them.
- Ask people if they understand politely. Don’t say something like, “You understood this, right?” or “This is obvious, of course, but maybe someone has questions?” It’s not the time to be passive-aggressive (there’s no good time for this at all).
- Stress out the important things. If you want people to remember a certain update from you, emphasize it. Don’t mention important things casually between this and then. Make a separate statement and tell them that it matters.
- Repeat information. This helps to put information into our long-term memory automatically. It’s like the brain gives up and finally decides to store it.
- Use several channels to pass the information. When you leverage several sources to present data (audio, visual, text, etc.), you have more chances to keep people’s attention and help them memorize the information. Do you want to present a solution? Explain it in voice, but also add visual schema, if applicable. Or share your screen with the main bullet points when presenting it. This is really easy, and it works! Sharing your camera video also helps, as we transmit a lot of information non-verbally with gestures and facial expressions.
- Make a recap or a summary of what you just said. If there are no questions or objections, you may relax.
- Respect other presenters. If you’re not the star of the show, try to help a presenter by being a careful listener. If you got the point, but others didn’t, you may try to help a presenter and explain the matter again. This way, you can make sure you’ve caught the idea correctly.
Respect the time
The truth is, nobody wants to be in a meeting just for the sake of it. We all come to meetings with some goal in mind, and we want to get to it ASAP. So, respect people’s time.
Not everything can be described in a short block of communication, but you should aim to only use as many words as necessary to describe the situation and question. For the same reason, omit long intros about what you’ll talk about. Get to the point immediately.
Also, keep an eye on the clock. From my experience, I’ve noticed that when the meeting time is over, some people are surprised. Don’t let time surprise you. It’s under your control.
If you plan to improve the style of your presentations or communication, think about people whom you like as speakers, and copy the things you like in them. Learn from the best, don’t reinvent the wheel.
It takes time to change your communication habits, practice better listening, and put yourself in the shoes of others to understand them better. It also requires extra effort to be prepared for each meeting, be it agenda or chart preparation, or just thinking about the upcoming conversation. But the results pay off dramatically, things gett done faster, and you feel more confident.