Sharing Control is the Fastest Path to Successful Communication

There are a lot of new communication products on the market that focus on solving time management problems for their customers by recreating and redesigning systems that already exist. There are facelifted email clients, complete with autofilters and boomeranged messaging, or wonderland chat platforms like Slack or Hipchat. And there are smartphone solutions for those who dictate. I’d describe these solutions as a “single lane approach.”

In order to affect the sort of deeper behavioral changes that could actually impact the problems we’re looking to solve, as product managers, designers, and engineers we may need to start considering crossing lanes.

Example: I’ve noticed lately how quickly I can solve problems on the phone, but how much I hate talking on it, especially in the beginning of the conversation. What if there were cross-platform solutions that eased me into the conversation, and made it suck less?

The Problem to be Solved

It does come back to email.

It’s OK, M. The hardest part is behind you. The horse is in a happier place. Take those jaunty jodhpurs, and head to some kind of haberdashery.

(I’ve written so much about email that at this point I’m assuming that my feelings about it are pretty clear, but in case you weren’t aware, I’m not a fan.)

I talked to a PM friend who told me he is drowning in email. He said, “I dream of having one day to simply answer it all.”

You should have heard his tired voice. Something is clearly broken in our current system.

At its core, email is a medium that benefits the writer more than the receiver. To change that, we need to reshape our thinking around communication and reset expectations for both writer and receiver. Until we do that, we are all going to continue to struggle in our workflow management and personal communication.

Why do so many people prefer texting and IMing to talking on the phone? I can tell you why I do: I get predictability and sense of control. Those same people will often start writing an email, when a text or IM would be a better option. Email’s strength is heavily weighted toward the writer, as a phone call gives the control to the caller. When I get email, I have to deal with it solely on the terms of the sender, who might have very little information about me — what I’m doing at the moment, what my work schedule is like, what I am prepared to deal with. Plus of course, whether they’ve intended to or not, they’ve added one more thing to my to-do list.

But when I get a text or IM, I have some control over what I’m being asked to do. I’ve found that changing the power dynamic this way has led to a clearer inbox, reduced communication anxiety, and better workflow. After years of getting emails that ask me if I can talk/chat/work on something, getting an IM asking if I have time to engage (“you busy?”) is downright intoxicating. No response needed or expected. No to do sitting and waiting for me. With email, a large part of the burden is on the reader, because the communication is almost solely on the writer’s terms. When you text or IM, responsibility for the interaction is finally being shared.

But, as we’ve all experienced, texting and IMing can’t always handle nuanced communication that needs to happen quickly. This is where the magical combination enters the picture: The chat-to-phone (or chat-to-hangout). The beauty of this combo is that you initiate communication with a shared agreement. By ensuring that both people agree to take part in a conversation at the same time, you’re engaging on better terms, most likely with better results. You’re likely to figure things out faster than you would have in any other way. In effect, the chat acts as a negotiation. It says, “Are we ready to figure out a solution here?” You are able to take advantage of the strengths of the phone or video hangout — more information from verbal inflections, facial expressions, pauses — but feeling that you entered in the right time and place. You’re not handed a bunch of to-do’s and time management tasks in an inbox. You’re collaborated with in real time. In effect, prioritization is happening by both parties.

I’m sure it’s out there, but I haven’t read much about creating ways to enhance this approach. Maybe the reason it doesn’t get written about more often is that it crosses lanes. But that is exactly why it’s powerful. It takes the best of texting — a feeling of control and autonomy — and joins it with the best of the phone — nuance, immediacy, and more information.

Switching lanes doesn’t make for easy technical and business implementations but it does address human needs and motivations. It could be the key to finally ridding ourselves of some of our most draining and time-consuming communication problems.

I write to help clarify my own ideas, create community and take part in dialogue. Please share a response if you have one! And connect with me on Twitter @mudaba.