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Distributed Team Communications: Tripping Over Words

Johanna Rothman, www.jrothman.com, @johannarothman
Yves Hanoulle, www.hanoulle.be, @YvesHanoulle

Recently, Johanna used a word in a blog post: discrimination. She used that word as a way to show a distinction between two ideas, not as discrimination against people. A legal yet unknown use of the word for Yves.

Yves was surprised by that word usage and we had an email conversation about it. We realized that our experience is duplicated every day on many software development teams, including geographically distributed teams.

People say things, not realizing that the other person might understand something else.

Yves worked on a distributed team where a Spanish person said in the standup, "I donít listen you." The team member meant, "I donít hear you." Hear and listen might be the same word in Spanish--and even if they are not the same word, his lack of understanding concerned Yves. "Why would this team member not listen to me?" Even though it wasnít "listening," the other personís reaction was disconcerting to Yves.

Johanna worked on a distributed team where some of the people did not understand sarcasm. She rolled her eyes, but because the team members had an audio-only connection, some people did not understand her meaning. One of the team members was so concerned, he asked to speak with her after the call. Thatís when Johanna realized her sarcasm did not "translate" to the other personís cultural understanding of what was acceptable on a call.

We have seen that uncommon usage can lead to people misunderstanding each other. Sometimes, we see insufficient communication can lead to misunderstandings.

We have noticed a couple of interesting things about communication:

  1. When non-native speakers talk with each other, they check their understandings more often. That has the effect that they have fewer misunderstandings when they speak the unfamiliar language.
  2. We also noticed that in chat - a low bandwidth communication - we find fewer misunderstandings. Thatís often because we have an immediate check for each otherís comprehension.

When Yves and Johanna discussed Johannaís use of "discrimination," we were able to clarify what Johanna meant and what Yves thought.

What Words Mean

One common theme here, is that the people in the conversation check with each other, to make sure they understand each other.

With a distributed team, we have many opportunities to misunderstand what each person means.

Yves once worked on a team that had a loud disagreement. They used the word product. Yves asked, "What do you mean by product?" to one of the team members. He said, "What we ship to customers." Yves then asked the other person. "Oh, I mean the internal support tools. If you mean what we ship to customers, I fully agree with you."

In this case, the unexpected wording caused the disagreement. When Yves asked the question, "What do you meanÖ" the people were able to find common ground and agree.

Weíve seen the same kind of concerns when team members see a product backlog.

Part of the problem is with the word, "backlog." In agile, it means the ranked list of all the work, or the ranked list of work for an iteration. The original English meaning was work we had not done yet - and for many people, we have a feeling that we should not have any work on a "backlog." We should have nothing on the iteration backlog, because we have completed our work.

Another word we see people use differently is "refactor." On one team, Nancy had agile experience. David was new to agile. When Nancy talked about refactoring, she meant no more than an hour or so of work as part of the feature. When David talked about refactoring, he meant several weeks of iterating for a new design, a design review, and a code review.

They used the same word, with quite different meanings. Sometimes, external people can see the difference in meaning that the involved people cannot see.

In this case, Johanna suspected they had different meanings. She asked them to write down their refactoring process with approximate times for each step. Thatís when they realized their approaches were different.

Now they could explore their options together. What would be reasonable for the project now?

When You Feel Stuck in Your Communication

If you go back and forth a couple of times and feel stuck, maybe you have a misunderstanding. Realizing that is the first step. Consider these ideas to verify your assumption:

  1. Slow down communication. We often have a sense of urgency about everything, not just our communication. When we slow down, we can examine the parts that we might not agree on, and realize we have a miscommunication.
  2. Verify that we understand correctly. This is where you might ask, "Did you meanÖ" Avoid repeating the same words if you are explaining. If you are asking, you might feel awkward.
  3. Consider another form of communication. If youíve been speaking, consider typing in email or SMS. If youíve been typing, consider video. When we shift forms of communication, we offer each other options. This is critical when we communicate with people who are non-native speakers. We might all be fluent and we use our brains differently.

We have discovered that introversion/extraversion influence our communication preferences. Some of us write to think (introvert). Some of us speak to think (extravert). We might even find that our preferences are situational. Over distance, our preferences can magnify our communication differences. We can select the communication mode that helps us understand each other, in this situation.

When we experiment with other forms of communication, we can see--what will work for us now? If that form no longer works, or doesnít ease understanding, we can try another form.

With our misunderstanding of the word, "discrimination," Yves checked with Johanna. We had an asynchronous email conversation (changed the mode) where we checked our meaning. Once we understood each other, we were able to say, "Oh, thatís what you meant."

What experiments can you try to achieve better understanding in your team?


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This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Methods & Tools

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