Synchronizing the Pace of Communications

I was once a director in a team responsible for the online presence of a large company. At one point, the VP who oversaw our department had us take Myers-Briggs profile tests. I wasn’t sold on the profiles (and still aren’t), but I did learn something which has proven useful throughout my life: that different people have different paces when communicating. Specifically, some people process what they hear very fast and respond immediately, while others take more time. (This doesn’t imply these people are smarter or better than the others — they’re just different.)

When the two types interact, the differences in their paces can cause all sorts of trouble. People with very short feedback cycles become impatient when interacting with people who take longer. Conversely, people who take longer can feel overwhelmed and ignored by people with fast paces. Being aware of these differences can go a long way to improving communications, since each party can adjust their interventions to improve the flow of ideas and ensure the other is being heard.

Teams, too, have communication paces. Let’s say you’re a member of a company’s design team. You and your fellow designers are focused on different aspects of a product or service. You come together periodically to “synch up” with each other (either remotely or in person); perhaps it’s a Monday morning meeting where everyone shares what they’ve done and learned, the challenges they’re facing, etc. Eventually, ​you establish a rhythm of work dictated by these weekly meetings; you expect to see and produce progress at this pace.

Now imagine you’re asked to work with a group of stakeholders in another department. The folks on this team don’t have weekly check-in meetings; they’re on a two-week cycle. As a result of this difference in schedules, your requests for feedback take longer than you expect — sometimes weeks longer. Eventually, you become frustrated and perhaps even start suspecting your counterparts’ motives and/or competence.

It’s easier to adjust your own pace than those of other people. Asking questions such as, “When do you need this by?” and “How soon can I hear back from you with an answer?” can seem trivial, but managing expectations around communications is essential. When working with folks on a long-term basis, be on the lookout for patterns. How soon do they respond with information that moves the project forward? How much leeway do they give when making requests?

Knowing your interlocutors’ pacing can help make you a more effective communicator. Determining the right pace calls for paying attention to how and when they’re responding and having the self-awareness to know different people — and teams — have different communication needs and expectations.