Thursday, May 04, 2006

More on Listening Online: How Technology Offers Business Insights

Continuing from the last post, I had a lesson online on how a pair of technological tools can teach you to be a better listener, and ultimately, a better thinker.

John Smith, a very smart collaborative strategist, offered to show me the value of online communication with two tools: the telephone and a chat screen (in this case, Skype).

Skeptical From the Start

My theater background demonstrated that most productions claiming mixed-media were not -- more several individual mediums working side by side with only the thinest excuse of a relationship to each other. Having never liked online synchronous communication much (IM, Chat, etc.), I was also dubious. Furthermore, John and I knew each other only through two brief email used to set up a phone meeting. There were no expectations, I'm sure, on either of our parts.

Despite long-held doubts, the conversation showed me the unique value of mixed media for communication. I was floored by the possibilities.

The Set Up

John asked me on the phone to open a chat window in Skype. He then said he'd take notes in the window and that I should, too. The plan was to save the material and refer to it after the call if we were so inclined.

The first exercise was introducing ourselves. John began jotted down phrases or words that represented concepts or experiences I felt have been important in my work, and they would appear in the window with a "whoosh" one at a time. After an intitial sefl-consciousness, I appreciated the attention he paid. From his notes, I felt heard in a way that is not clear when one is just on the phone.

I also heard what John said differently. I saw clearly what he found interesting, important, worth going back to later. I also saw what he didn't note -- and I'd test whether the reason was he didn't understand the concept, had preconceived notions about language and dismissed it, or whether it was old hat to him already. I did this by repeating what I meant in different ways and contexts and immediately saw from the relationship between what he said on the phone and screen where he was in our conversation.

Seeing Things New By Hearing Them, Too

Just to play, I took notes on John's ideas as well. We shared urls by writing them down in the window, one tangent led to another, and without notice, we were collaborating by asking each other questions about -- or giving perspective to -- preconceptions or blocks we had in our thinking process.

By the end of the call, I felt intimate with the thinking process of this total stranger. Granted, there were a lot of clues -- for example, John's vocabulary demonstrated a strong academic orientation. As an ex-academic, that told me a lot about the level of abstraction and paradigms in which he considers his work.

Because he used the word improv quite a bit with little qualification, I understood that he had used the word for a long time. When I asked if he had a theater background and he said no, I understood from his notes the assumptions he held about the practice. Because I am a theater practioner, I could flesh it out for him as he could flesh out for me the variety of ways in which online media have been used.

Conversation Becomes Collaboration

In short, we both learned from each other and created something new in our chat screen. I understood how an individual medium has unique benefits but except for people with particular proclivities, probably isn't enough to create a sense of connection. However, depending on the individual, some combination of media could enhance relationship, discussion, creative problem-solving, whatever -- even with a total stranger.

Why Cameras are Deceptive

One would think that the camera would be the strongest tool. After all there is a sense that photographic images have a transparent relationship to meaning. In other words, if you can see behavior or expressions photographically, you immediately understand what they means. Unfortunately, this is a too common case of confusing data (raw material) with analysis (the value or meaning of the data).

In addition, seeing someone's face is a habit in communication that carries assumptions from the off-line world.

The remarkable thing about new communication tools -- when used thoughtfully -- is that they force us to see and hear everything in new ways as we adjust to an unfamiliar communication process. We need to find our way -- and that destroys assumptions as we search in what we acknowledge as unknown territory.

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