Engineering Lessons Learned -- The Golden Rule of Chat

05 Sep 2018

I’ve been thinking about effective workplace communication for a long time. About 10 years ago, I wrote a wiki post about the strengths and weaknesses of common workplace communication tools. This was in the era of Yammer, Adium, Jabber and IRC, but with the one addition of now widely available video chat, the framework applies equally well today. This table summarizes my framework for thinking about the attributes of each tool.

Tool     Interruption     Intrusiveness     Bandwidth     Context/Cues    
In-person Sync High High High
Email Async Low High Medium
Text Chat Async(ish) Medium/High Low Low
Phone/Voice Chat Sync High High High
Video Chat Sync High High High

Each workplace communication tool has a different capacity for communicating complex ideas, interrupts the recipient with a different level of urgency and intrusiveness, provides a different amount of context and is better or less able to convey your intended tone along with the content of your message.

I recently had the misfortune of (re)learning (again) how easy it is for a workplace communication to go awry and for my (only the best) intentions to be misinterpreted. In my case, I engaged in a text chat and expected to be able to communicate relatively subtle tone and emotion. Looking at the chart above helps highlights the risks of text chat. Because it supports only Low Complexity Bandwidth and provides only a Low level of Context and Cues about your intent, text chat can too easily be misinterpreted. Further, chat is “always on” during the day and, depending on your workplace culture, senders may generally expect you to answer relatively quickly. These qualities can reinforce each other and chat threads can go to a bad place in the time it takes to type a few words.

So even though I know better, I had to learn once again the Golden Rule of effective workplace chat – Chat Unto Others as You Would be Chatted to.

As with all rules, following this one is easier said than done. Here is some specific advice for implmenting the Golden Rule, based on the table above:

  • Be mindful of the intrusiveness of chat. Interruptions to your fellow engineering teammates are distracting and expensive, which may cause the person you are interrupting anxiety. Try to bundle up questions, keep questions and comments short, and keep in mind that they may not want to or be able to answer immediately.
  • Be mindful of the bandwidth limitations of chat. A chat app isn’t the most effective place to carry on a long, detailed discussion of a complex subject. Such content works better in text documents that support comments, wiki pages, or emails. Forcing too much density through the thin pipe of text chat forces your teammates to work too hard to comprehend what you are trying to say, which can again cause them stress, or at least aggravation.
  • Be mindful that chat provides little context and only vague emotional and tonal cues. It is VERY easy for your words to misinterpreted, because that is basically all chat is, words. Emojis and reactions in a tool like Slack help. But it’s still really easy to screw this up. And if you do, you can’t look the person in the eye and explain what you actually meant. Worse, they are somewhere else, separate from you, reacting and even amplifying their initial reaction in their own thoughts, without you being able to explain what you actually meant.
  • Strive to have no tone at all in your chat posts, unless you are certain of your audience and how your content will be interpreted. (For example, humor in chat can be a great way to build camaraderie and strengthen culture, but be careful.). Before hitting Send read over what you have written, twice, and edit out anything that is not directly related to the ideas you want to communicate. This is especially needed when you suspect what you are saying may be interpreted as critical or controversial. Of course, you can’t know this, and you will likely only get better at detecting these cases through the experience of making painful mistakes. So it’s better to be conservative. When in doubt, sanitize rather than antagonize.
  • At the first hint of conflict, move the conversation to one of the forms of communication with a High level of Context. The best (and often only) way to patch up a misunderstanding is to communicate face to face if possible, or by video chat. You need to be able to look at someone while talking to them to regain trust and clear up misunderstanding.

So, reflecting on this recent chat that got away from me, and asking myself how I could do better, I decided to ask the colleague with whom I had the conflict for feedback. I learned that often what I thought of as my clarifying use of “tone” or “emphasis” in text chat was actually being interpreted as provocative or even confrontational.

I had to remind myself that the point of communicating with colleagues is not to “be true to myself,” but rather to effectively and collaboratively communicate an idea. I had to remind myself to use each form of communication wisely, and for what it does well.