PART 01: IF IT’S BROKEN — FIX IT!

02 How We Are Wired to Communicate

Humans are born to communicate. As our species evolved, we developed the capability to pass information and describe what we think, feel, and imagine — a skill that has served us well in creating things together. Almost every single thing created by humans couldn’t have been made without our ability to communicate and reshape our reality. To our knowledge, we are the only species that can do that.

At the same time, communication is not trivial, even with these extraordinary skills, and in the past couple of decades, it has become even less so. Each of us is a different person, with different knowledge and experience and a different way of thinking. And while we acknowledge that rationally, we often communicate with others, assuming they know exactly what we know and think just like we do. We believe we and our partners in the conversation are starting at the same point and walking the same logical path, and this assumption dominates our interactions. Creating a common ground for communication is already challenging when interacting with one individual. Conversing with multiple people simultaneously demands even more attention, intent, flexibility, and typically more time. It is anything but trivial. 

When we say humans are designed to communicate, we naturally think about Real-Time Communication. This is the form of communication we are wired for: immediate, direct, and bidirectional communication.

Real-Time Communication, as the name suggests, is immediate. For the past couple of decades, more and more of our interactions feel like they are immediate, but this is just a mirage. Real-time, in this context, means two or more people interacting now, with no delay other than the one needed to listen and process the ideas being exchanged in a face-to-face conversation. This is neither good nor bad. As with many things we will discuss, it depends on the context and what we aim to achieve. Immediacy is sometimes needed to ignite a discussion and spark creative ideas. Still, there are many cases where delaying our response and allowing quiet processing time results in a more profound dialogue. A Real-Time Communication mode doesn’t typically create the setup required for deep understanding and analysis. 

The second attribute of Real-Time Communication is being direct and unmediated. This means you communicate directly with one or more people without a mediator. But I’ll go further than that to say that Real-Time Communication does not involve any recorded medium, be it textual, visual, or auditory, which is a fancy way to say that Real-Time Communication is based on talking directly. Without saying anything for or against it, any variant of email, shared documents, or instant messaging is, by definition, indirect, no matter how quickly we seem to get a response.

Being immediate and direct does not mean we cannot use a digital platform for remote communication. A discussion held in a video call certainly falls within the boundaries of Real-Time Communication. The nature of such tools and how they emulate an actual face-to-face interaction turn them into means of Real-Time Communication. In many scenarios, it is the only viable solution for having a real conversation — the kind of conversation we are wired for.

Real-Time Communication’s third and last attribute is being bidirectional and on equal terms. A speech or any other kind of monologue, even if it is delivered live, is not considered Real-Time Communication. For Real-Time Communication, I need to be able to respond in real-time. As long as I am merely a listener, the communication is not bidirectional. A speech or a long monologue could undoubtedly be valid and valuable options in some cases. Still, they don’t allow real-time interaction between the speaker and the people who are essentially the audience.

Many of our Real-Time Communication is informal. A random encounter by the coffee machine, having lunch together, any unplanned interaction within a team working together, or a morning chitchat that evolves into a discussion about a significant task. These conversations don’t have to be all work-related or designed to create something together, but even if they are, they are still informal and mostly unplanned. You don’t expect them to have an agenda or a bottom line, and their content will almost always remain between the people having the conversation. Informal interactions often drive problem-solving, innovation, and creativity forward. Many teams develop more creative ideas and solutions during informal interactions than formal meetings. But even more important, when we think about ineffective communication, we rarely think about these casual encounters. If anything, these interactions make us more engaged and connected to our teams, colleagues, and other people in our lives.

We are wired for informal real-time interactions, but they are not scalable. As we are expected to communicate more, with more people, and achieve more challenging goals together as a team, the anecdotal, unplanned nature of informal communication can rarely maintain effectiveness. When I was a student, my friend and I had to work together on an assignment. We ordered some pizza, and after a couple of hours, we came up with more than a reasonable outcome without planning too much in advance. We talked a lot without any predefined agenda, and somehow, the magic happened. In a project involving dozens of people, however, no amount of pizza will replace a well-thought-out exchange of information and a structured way to make and communicate decisions. 

As the stakes get higher, the naive implementation of Real-Time Communication starts to lose its edge. In these demanding setups and when dealing with complex challenges, Real-Time Communication can still drive a meaningful conversation with positive feedback loops and energy that is hard to recreate in any other form of communication. However, to achieve that, it has to be done right and with proper preparation. We can no longer naively walk into a meeting and expect effective results. Formal Real-Time Communication requires time, attention, and energy — an investment not everyone is happy to make if a cheaper alternative is available. 

With the rise of electronic communication, we were led to believe there was a cheaper, frictionless way to collaborate. A new form of communication took the lead and, at some point, took over our lives. Unfortunately, it also had a devastating impact on the quality of our interactions—even the good old face-to-face conversations.

Reflection and Practice

Consider recent real-time, face-to-face interactions in which you aimed to achieve something with your partners. 

  • What helped you reach an operative button line?
  • What challenges did you face in these interactions?
  • Did the number of people in the conversation impact its effectiveness?
  • What were the dynamics in each of these interactions?
  • Think of one thing you would do to improve the quality of your real-time interactions.
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