PART 01: IF IT’S BROKEN — FIX IT!

06 Generative Communication

Shallow.

If there is one word I would use to describe contemporary communication, this would be it. I can’t say that communication before email and instant messaging was super effective. But as Near-Time Communication started dominating our personal and professional lives, how we interact has become significantly shallower. And soon, the contagious nature of superficial communication caught up with how we interact face-to-face.

We communicate to exchange information, share ideas, and develop new ones. Shallow communication defies the reason for which we communicate. When our communication is superficial, it also gets in the way of doing so many other things — the core of our work. Instead of harnessing communication to work more effectively and create great things together, we have created a constant stream of interruptions that prevents us from doing so. 

If there is one word I would use to describe the kind of communication we should aspire to, it would be deep. Generative Communication does not compete with deep work — it is an essential part of it.

We are looking for a new way to communicate — a way that allows the effective processing of information, the generation of new insights and ideas, and the making of thoughtful decisions. It will cost. Nothing meaningful comes free. But instead of paying the price of poor communication — a price we often don’t measure even though we experience it daily — we would be better off investing in Generative Communication. We will enjoy the fruits of this investment in no time.

When you experience Generative Communication, you know it. You feel that you are engaged in an activity that helps you and your colleagues achieve something that would otherwise be impossible. If, like most people, you experience the flaws of contemporary communication, engaging in Generative Communication is striking. Once you have experienced it, the difference between shallow and deep interactions does not require any explanation.

Generative Communication is meaningful, intentful, and structured. These three attributes reinforce each other and create a positive feedback loop. The more you practice Generative Communication, the more natural and effective it gets.

Generative Communication is meaningful: it is driven by value. 

We don’t communicate merely to share our thoughts; we communicate because it helps us achieve a shared goal. No single interaction will take us to our destination, but every interaction should bring us at least one step closer. Generative Communication is inseparable from meaningful work. When we don’t see the value in a specific interaction, we disengage or change it to have a clear return on investment.

Being meaningful also applies at the micro-level: every bit of information and every idea we share should also have value and move us toward our destination. Even when we are convinced the discussion is required, we must verify that what we share, ask, or respond to can potentially promote a predefined goal. When we share a piece of information that is not relevant — information that is meaningless in the context of what we aim to achieve — we defocus the conversation, potentially making it unnecessarily longer and less effective. In Generative Communication, every word counts. 

When our interactions are value-oriented, we form a positive feedback loop. As soon as we change how we communicate in a way that has meaning and value, we acknowledge the benefit of the investment. We are willing to invest more because the value of communication is apparent. As we practice Generative Communication, the frustration we find so familiar today quickly dissolves. We no longer feel communication holds us back — we realize it drives us forward.

Generative Communication is intentful: it is never done as an afterthought.

Generative Communication is anything but spontaneous and hectic — it is planned, deliberate, and well-thought-out. Instead of automatically sending messages or triggering endless threads on a whim, we process things before sharing them. Instead of going into a meeting with no expectations, we create a setup that will enable us to make the most of the interaction. 

Reducing spontaneity and slowing down the discourse automatically improves our interactions. But we aim for much more than that.

The first level of communicating intentfully requires us to decide when we communicate, how, on what terms, and with whom. Being intentful is considering these questions in advance, defining a communication flow that maximizes the effectiveness of the interaction, and using this definition to govern it. 

Being intentful also means thinking about the information and ideas we share and how to articulate them. This will be our remedy to being reactive and replying automatically. Deciding what to write or say, and just as crucially, what to omit, is essential for effective communication. Intentfully phrasing our ideas so they are clear, well-understood, and impactful is no less critical. When you wish to co-create, how you articulate your ideas is as essential as the ideas themselves.

As our communication becomes more intentful, it also becomes more meaningful. Increasing the value of our interactions requires us to be intentional about it. With arbitrary, spontaneous communication, we won’t be able to deliver value for long. 

Generative Communication is structured: it is organized in a way that helps us understand and use information and ideas.

Structure in Generative Communication is anything that helps us find what we are looking for and navigate through the information and ideas we exchange. An effective structure reduces the overhead of communication and makes it more effective. A good structure makes our ideas more engaging, even if their essence remains the same. Structure can never replace well-thought-out ideas, but without structure, plenty of good ideas will either get lost or will not be accessible to the people we interact with.

The first level of structured communication is focused on the content we share and how we organize ideas and pieces of data within it. Structure is often confused with using predefined templates, and while some templates are effective in some cases, this is not the essence of structure. The way this book is organized, for example, is the structure of the book. I didn’t use any predefined template to organize it, but the order of chapters and ideas within each chapter are not accidental or arbitrary. The structure helps me build an argument instead of just sharing bits of ideas. If I have done good work modeling my ideas before writing them, you will likely gain more value when reading this text.

The structure of what we write and say affects how others understand it. The same set of statements arranged differently might create a different picture in the receiver’s mind, just like a different arrangement of Lego bricks creates a different model. There could be many effective ways to organize bits of data, insights, and ideas, but there are even more ineffective ways. An effective structure reduces the overhead of making sense of the information and ideas we share. Like a well-built skeleton, it holds our ideas together to make them more impactful.

The way the interaction is organized is another aspect of structure. With email, for example, all conversations are done in one place with a simple queue defining their order: the last message received appears on the top regardless of its content. Even if you use threaded conversations, folders, or channels, you have little control over how the information is arranged and consumed. This is the complete opposite of utilizing structure. Even if every message is well-designed and written, its location has little to do with the information it encapsulates. Navigating the conversation and referencing what you need when you need it becomes exponentially more difficult as the number of messages increases. With Generative Communication, we aim to make information and ideas easy to find, navigate through, reference, and retrieve. 

Adding structure reinforces the other two pillars of Generative Communication. Structure enables us to be more meaningful by effectively designing the content we share. We spend less time resolving misunderstandings or discussing things we have already resolved just because we can’t keep track of them. Our conversations are focused on moving toward our goals and targets. Structure helps us be more intentful. In contrast to the reactive way we mostly communicate today, keeping each conversation in context allows us more freedom to communicate on our terms. 

The more we practice Generative Communication, the more effective it gets. The reinforcing feedback loop between being meaningful, intentful, and structured makes this combination of traits extremely powerful. Neglecting one or more of these three pillars will break the feedback loop and regress us back to flawed Near-Time Communication or its derivative, ineffective implementation of Real-Time Communication.

Generative Communication adds friction to how we collaborate, and strangely, this friction increases the effectiveness of our interactions. When communication is “free,” it costs a great deal.

Reflection and Practice

Contemporary communication is generally not Generative Communication. That is why most people are frustrated by most of their goal-oriented communication. But this doesn’t mean all of our interactions are ineffective. Most of us can find islands of effective, fulfilling communication that enable us to achieve real progress and even enjoy the interaction. 

Think of an instance of communication you were part of that left you full of energy and motivation, with a clear notion of what needs to be done to move closer to a predefined goal. 

  • What made this interaction meaningful? 
  • What did you and the other participants do to turn this interaction into an effective interaction? Were you intentional regarding the content of the interaction? 
  • Was the interaction structured? What aspects of it were structured? 

Try to recreate this experience in an interaction you lead in the upcoming days.

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