Using short-hand communication within teams

shorthand.gifAs team members work together, it’s reasonable to expect that communication between them will improve over time. I have experienced times when I could almost read the minds of teammates and we could complete each other’s sentences with great certainty.

Team members highly attuned to one another can often develop a pattern of short-hand communication based on an understanding that some things do not have to be stated explicitly because the information is already shared between them. Reaching such a high level of closeness and understanding between team mates makes communication efficient, which allows more time for productivity and for the critical element of personal bonding.

There is a downside, however, because short-hand communication requires team members to make calculations about what is, and is not, already known by their team mates. A study led by Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago, examines the issue.

Consider two ways that sharing information could impact communication, what we call “local” and “global.” Jenn may say to Kate “Paul is leaving the party” if they both know his name, but “The guy with the goatee is leaving the party” if Kate does not know his name. Such “local” sensitivity to shared information implies that people rely on knowledge in communication only when it is known to be shared with the other.

Inefficiencies arises when the communicator miscalculates what information the other person knows. For example, if Jenn uses Paul’s name, but Kate does not know Paul, then she has to ask something like, “Which one is Paul?” This forces Jenn to supply new information, “The guy with the goatee.” Under those circumstances, it would have been more efficient for Jenn to be more explicit from the start.

Keysar found that “the more information participants shared, the more they used their own knowledge. This facilitated communication when they talked about shared objects, but increased confusion with information” that was not known by the receiver. The researchers conclude that “increase in knowledge overlap could benefit communication globally but could also introduce local inefficiencies.”

Miscalculating what knowledge others possess is not the only problem. We also have no assurance that someone will speak up about their lack of knowledge to clarify any confusion. In that case, the speaker would likely believe they communicated and yet the receiver would not get the message – at least not fully and accurately.

In summary, short-hand communication between team members who share knowledge can be rewarding and increase efficiency. However, when knowledge is not fully shared by team mates, short-hand communication can lead to inefficiencies, create confusion, and possibly cause communication failures.

I don’t take this as a sign to stop all short-hand communication. Rather, we should use other communication skills, such as “parroting” (repeating back what was heard), reading body language and listening for verbal cues, to make certain that the communication is received as intended.

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