05 When Near-Time and Real-Time Collide

Near-Time Communication dominates our interactions. What started as a promise for better communication became the source of many new habits. Mostly bad habits. Near-Time Communication platforms don’t just affect how we communicate when we use them — they affect how we think, interact, and collaborate with others in every aspect of our lives. At some point, having a discussion over days and weeks, using spontaneous, fractured bits of information, insights, and questions, became pretty standard. Social platforms are critical contributors to this mode of interaction. In many ways, they suffer from the same five flaws by design, which may be the primary reason we are blind to the problem. We normalized these flaws and accepted them as the modern way to interact and communicate. It is, therefore, no surprise that other forms of communication have gradually started to show the same symptoms. The flaws of contemporary communication are contagious.

Workplace meetings were the first to transform. Many of the work meetings we have are continuous. Each session is confined to a particular time slot, but we rarely reach the final minutes of a meeting with a clear view of what needs to be done next (apart from scheduling the next session).

Most workplace meetings are prescheduled, yet many of them are spontaneous in the sense that they don’t have a predefined agenda and lineup. Occasionally, we don’t even know what the meeting is about when we start it, but even if we do, we often don’t know what to expect and what is expected of us. Conversations should not be scripted, but there is a vast spectrum between knowing exactly what everyone will say and not knowing what we are expected to discuss. Spontaneity and effectiveness don’t go hand in hand in most cases. 

Since many meetings don’t have a predefined agenda and the expectations are often fuzzy, many discussions are fractured even when they are done face-to-face. We run from one meeting to another, and within the same meeting, we frequently switch topics before we resolve anything. When the conversation is unstructured, we waste time and energy on context-switching. The logical flow of the conversation becomes obscure. Continuing the discussion in the next meeting, let alone revisiting it in the future, becomes impractical and sometimes impossible. 

Being fractured, continuous, and spontaneous makes many of our real-time interactions unfocused. It is easy to be drawn to side discussions instead of converging toward a conclusion. New issues (or sub-issues) can be raised at any point, and the center of the discussion will shift. Sometimes, this is necessary. In many other cases, it covers the path leading toward our goal with thick fog. 

Like emails and instant messaging, many face-to-face conversations gradually became shallow. They appear to cover many topics but are often discussed in a way that cannot result in a well-thought-out, operative decision. Even when we do reach a bottom line, it typically barely scratches the surface of the problem, which is why so many meetings end with the statement, “Let’s take this offline.” We just don’t make much progress in meetings. We don’t perceive meetings as a meaningful way to communicate and promote our goals. We consider them to be primarily a setback. 

Real-Time Communication should have been the most effective way to communicate. And yet, many of us feel we don’t utilize it well. It suffers from the same flaws as Near-Time Communication, but while these flaws are inherent to email and instant messaging, real-time interactions should have been better. Much better. In that sense, the typical meeting has become nothing more than the extension of an email thread. How we communicate using email and instant messaging has affected us so much that we rarely try to interact differently when we meet face-to-face. We grew to believe this is how communication is doomed to be. We exchange words and sentences, but we don’t really communicate. We meet, but we fail to interact deeply. 

In our personal lives, face-to-face conversations are generally considered the better part of communication. Still, when we aim to achieve something together with our partners, we rarely set the time and space to have a deep, effective discussion. It might seem strange to think of such interactions as we think of professional meetings, but the truth is that effective communication requires a solid setup and well-thought-out preparation, even when done in an informal context. Achieving new things together, whether discussing the option for relocation or trying to resolve a challenge our children face, requires more than a spontaneous conversation. The challenges and opportunities in our personal lives are no less demanding than the issues we discuss at work. 

Communication should have helped us connect and achieve things together. Instead, we feel less connected than ever before. We feel the overhead of communication prevents us from achieving our goals. We are less productive and less effective, and we make suboptimal decisions. We communicate more, but it feels like we are communicating in vain. We seem to work more and achieve less; we talk all all the time but we barely listen. What started as a promise became a plague that affected many, if not all, of our interactions. 

The solution lies in a third form of communication designed for co-creation and does not come at its expense. A more profound form of communication that utilizes the good traits of both Near-Time Communication and Real-Time Communication. Communication that can be scaled and adapted to different needs and setups. Communication that provides real value and helps us create great things together.

Reflection and Practice

In your next face-to-face conversation, be attentive to the characteristics of the conversation. 

Look for the flaws of Near-Time Communication and reflect on how they affected what should have been a quality real-time interaction. 

Consider what you can do differently in a future conversation.

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