The Necessity of Asynchronous Communication

By Deane Barker

Synchronous communication is over-rated. By this, I mean the concept of talking to someone face-to-face, or over-the-phone in real-time.

I’m not saying this communication doesn’t have some unique properties, but in a lot of cases, it’s not what you really need. Rather, you need asynchronous communication, where one party says something but doesn’t wait around for an answer. When the other party does respond, the conversation continues.

I wrote about this almost 10 years ago when I explained Why Email is Better Than the Telephone. I said:

A lot of interactions are, by nature, segmented. In a lot of conversions with someone, you need to check with someone else about something, research something, wait for something to happen, etc. A lot of phone calls are ended because someone “offline” has to occur before they continue. This fits in perfectly with email.

And this is still true.

Real-time communication introduces lots of non-communication factors that often confuse the issue at hand. You’re trying to debate a larger problem, but you keep get distracted by the other conversant’s annoying tie and the Southern accent that drives you nuts.

Additionally, you often don’t think clearly on the spur-of-the moment. Ever had a debate about something that you “won” an hour later when you were thinking up what you should have said in the car on the way home?

Even if you’re great on-the-spot, perhaps you need some time to research something. You’re not an encyclopedia, and an off-the-cuff exchange gives you no time to make sure you’re know what you’re talking about.

When my wife and I were dating, we were full of drama, as most young people are. Thankfully, we learned a constructive way to argue – we would call each other and leave messages on each other’s answering machine. This gave us time to absorb the other person’s response, think about it, determine an appropriate response, rehearse it a bit, then deliver it.

(I still remember the time I answered the phone to hear Annie say, awkwardly, “Um…I was calling for your answering machine…”).

There’s still a category of people who eschew email and prefer the phone. They see this as folksy, good old common sense – “Why do that new fangled stuff, when the phone still works fine?” Or they view it in terms of human relations – “We’re too disconnected these days, so it’s much better just to walk into someone’s office.” (Most of these people enjoy being contrarian, and a lot of them consider this part of their personal brand.)

These sentiments may be true in many cases, but not in all. There are certain communications and interactions and patterns when a real-time, face-to-face conversation is exactly the wrong thing and will damage the exchange more than help it.

  • When the topic is deeply complicated and requires multiple antecedent understandings before solving the core problem.
  • When many, many participants are involved in vary degrees of depth – some deeply, some lurking on the edges.
  • When the topic is vague and exploratory and relies on many sources of information external to the conversation participants. (How many meetings have you had that lasted 30 seconds before you realized you didn’t have all the information you needed and would have to get that before you could talk more…)
  • When one or more of the participants are lacking in social skills – they might be quick to anger, slow to understand on the spot, too quiet to be understood, or any combination of those.
  • When the topic is long-running. Some topics start as the recording of an event, and when that event happens again, the conversation restarts.
  • When the topic needs to be recorded, either for historical value, or so others can join the conversation later and read the history.

I always remember a project manager at a company I worked out. I couldn’t stand this woman, and I had a hard time talking to her about anything (in retrospect, however, she was a very talented PM).

Whenever would send her an email, my phone would ring immediately. I had to resist the urge to yell into the phone “I sent you an email exactly because I didn’t want to talk to you!!”

Maybe I was just a jerk, but even then I was having trouble understanding the desire for some people to always talk in real-time.

This is item #48 in a sequence of 354 items.

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