Do You Mistake Communication For Conversation?

Jan 11, 2018 | Conversation

We mistake communication for conversation. As I have remarked before here, we often belittle the richness of “conversation” by using that word unsparingly to describe any activity of personal interaction. This is particularly noticeable when we are considering communication via a virtual platform or other technological medium. The CEO of Slack, Stewart Butterfield, should be expected to have a nuanced view of this distinction, and he does. Sort of. As reported by Laura Amico in her Harvard Business Review piece, Butterfield had this response to Amico’s question:

Given all the benefits of digital communication, is something lost when I don’t walk across the office to check in on a project or a colleague? Does the ease of digital communication damage in-person communication?

“My first answer is no, it doesn’t. Digital communication frees up capacity so that the in-person conversations can be about things that require more nuance. Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing a bunch of press interviews, and often when I’m talking to a journalist I need to share stats — for example, 55% of Slack’s user base is outside the U.S., there are 420,000 Slack users in New York, and so on. It’s much more efficient to just say “We’ll send that to you.” The job of digital communication is to take care of those low-bandwidth conversations, where things are on the record, you don’t have to remember the details, and the content is straightforward. A lot of information falls into that category. And then there are the high-bandwidth conversations, where people may or may not exchange factual information, such as stats, but where a high degree of trust is necessary. These types of conversations can benefit greatly from social signals such as body language and facial expressions.”

Despite Butterfield’s first answer being that digital communication does not damage in-person communication, he goes on to describe one facet of the distinction between communication and conversation: In-person conversation is essential for clarity and trust. Butterfield also acknowledges, without saying so specifically, that digital communication is good for information transfer that is robotic or non-human but not for those scenarios where some level of human connection is necessary or beneficial. In other words, communication is a sterile act involving transmission of data points with no regard to our emotional state. Conversation, however, facilitates human connection, triggering our flourishing and resulting in prosocial and pro-business outcomes, such as increased productivity, creativity, and engagement. 

The problem with our work environments and our social experiences is that we have prioritized technology-based communication processes and tools over more human, personal forms of engagement. We do not balance our technologies with human connectivity; rather, we have traded conversation away for communication. Paraphrasing MIT expert Sherry Turkle, I am not anti-technology but I am pro-conversation. Don’t look to tools and systems of communication to help you feel authentic, meaningful connection. To satisfy our human needs and stoke our potential, we must embrace conversation.

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