Constructive Overcommunication and Building Trust

September 28, 2023

This blog post originally appeared in ARTT's Trust Issues newsletter. Sign up to get updates in your inbox!

As I might have mentioned before, ARTT as an organization is dedicated to trust. As well as developing and refining a framework of possible responses for everyday conversations around complicated topics, we’re building practical software tools that facilitate better online conversations. To put it another way, in deciding whether you can respond to that latest tweet (“X”?) about Taylor Swift, it helps to know how to speak Swiftie.   

As a small, remote-first and globally-distributed group of researchers, designers, technologists, social scientists (and others!), trust is a crucial part of working together as a team. And, to use the somewhat inelegant formulation popular in software development, we sometimes need to eat our own dogfood. 🐶

Excited to taste-test our own brand of trust-flavored Alpo, in early September ARTT met up as a group in Seattle. We chose Seattle because half of our team is based at the University of Washington, so it’s easier for them to attend, and because Seattle is Fun. While we covered a lot of things about our team and where we want to go next, some of the most important work we did was in figuring out how we can build trust in each other as we work together on the project.

“Improving organizational trust” can sound squishy, for sure (“trust falls” come to mind). But building team trust is a hard topic that people work to solve in many different ways, and it’s a necessary consideration especially for a small group of people who primarily interact online and who all need to rely on and understand each other to work quickly and autonomously. 

Establishing trust by “constructively overcommunicating”

One way to think about trust is that it’s simply a mutual willingness to talk openly with each other. In fact, we want to go beyond that: As a team, if we want to prepare the ground for productive conflict and avoid “high” conflict, (a concept discussed by journalist and conflict resolution mediator Amanda Ripley) we need to figure out ways to sometimes constructively overcommunicate

As Ripley explains:

We intend to send one message and people hear another, especially in conflict. So we have to overcommunicate, even at the risk of repeating ourselves. And we have to really listen to people checking in to see what they think and what they heard. Good communication requires way more back and forth than we want it to.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at some of the conversations we're developing, and the questions we still have.

First, in Seattle this past month we talked about the need to be open to other communication styles

  • Some of us like to talk a lot, on multiple channels. 
  • Other members of the ARTT team prefer to be terse and more targeted. 
  • Some people respond immediately to everything; others respond… Eventually.

Understanding how each communication style works – and how each communication style interacts with other communication styles – is a challenge. But rather than enforce a single standard for team communication, we’re trying to figure out how to understand each other’s preferences and adapt. This willingness to seek to understand and work with different communication styles is a key step to building trust.

Second, in Seattle we talked about meetings – meetings are both really important and really hard for an online-first, distributed group like ours. One informal “rule” some of us on the team observe is to not schedule meetings on Monday. So, at our meetup in Seattle, we used a meeting to talk about perhaps adding more days to that worthy initiative. At ARTT, we’re also big on meeting agendas (in order to use meeting time to get things done, or even end early), so we explored ways that everyone can contribute to that to make sure their voices are heard. We’re looking to structure “what are your thoughts?” open time at the end of meetings. And to encourage everyone to be involved, we’re trying to establish a rotation where each person will take a turn running our main all-hands meeting. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a reminder about trust for our Slack- and Zoom-based virtual team floating around out there in cyberspace: “Don’t be scared to ask if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing.” This reminder is particularly critical since a lot of the informal signals people have traditionally used to figure this out when meeting in-person can be missing from a remote environment.

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