Communicating Effectively

Effective communication takes practice, and a strong interest in understanding (and being understood) by others. It’s about listening, and making time to ensure that your group is OK and on the right track with your project.

What do we need to communicate about?

Here are some of the things groups usually need to communicate about:

  • Getting to know each other
  • Creating group process guidelines (group charter)
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Solving problems
  • Checking on progress
  • Sharing drafts
  • Discussing content
  • Providing feedback and encouragement
  • Seeking agreement/opinion

Just remember, if you’re signing up to a web service hosted in the U.S.A., you’ll want to take note of their privacy policies before you give up any personal information. The United States have different privacy projection laws than Canada does. The Canadian government released these tips for protecting your personal information across borders

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Tools to Support Communication

If you’re using Connect, you might have been assigned a private group discussion area for working together. If your group process is being evaluated, you might want to make sure you keep your communication within Connect, where the instructor has access to it. If you aren’t being evaluated on communication, though, then you can use whatever tool you want to communicate.

  • Connect discussions, as mentioned, are group discussion spaces on Connect that can only be accessed by you and your group. This allows for asynchronous communication: not everyone needs to be online at the same time to talk. Discussion items can be posted and responded to at any time.
  • Skype is a free VoIP tool which allows you to communicate with video, audio, and text. It’s like conference calling, but with your computer, and absolutely free. Skype is just one of many VoIP tools.
  • Wiggio is another tool that supports communication and working in groups. You can have a videoconference, share a calendar, share files and use a whiteboard to plan your project. Wiggio also supports mobile use.
  • Email! While long email chains can quickly become cumbersome, email allows your group to keep records, and almost everyone has an email address they check regularly.

Wikis and other online collaborative writing tools can help, too. Check them out when you have a chance.


Communication Challenges

Sometimes working in groups brings up challenges. Here are a few of the more common communication problems, adapted from work done at the Derek Bok Centre, at Harvard University. They offer some examples of strategies that can be used to handle various problems.

  1. My group is floundering! This generally happens when people are having difficulty figuring out their role in a group, and decisions are being postponed. Suggesting a review of project goals and assigning roles can help the group to move forward.
  2. One person is dominating the discussion, or someone has checked out. Try encouraging participation by making sure that everyone’s ideas are heard before decisions are made, and speaking to quiet members outside of formal group meetings.
  3. My group goes off on too many tangents. Tangents can lead in creative directions, but too many prevent any work from being done. Review your timelines and summarize discussion to the point before you wandered off. Review any ideas that may spring from the tangent to see if they have merit.
  4. My group isn’t making any progress. If your group isn’t progressing, it can be disheartening. If this happens, ask the group what they think would help solve the problem. Review your timeline, goals, and progress made, and try to identify why you haven’t been moving forward.
  5. My group is acting before we agree on what to do!. Some people are more action-oriented than others, and pressure the group to start moving in directions that everyone might not be on board with. Take time to ensure there’s consensus in the group before moving ahead.
  6. Members in my group won’t stop fighting!. Sometimes people in a group just don’t see eye to eye. The group might not be able to move ahead until each viewpoint is heard. Consider assigning a mediator.
  7. People in my group don’t respect others. A private chat outside the group might help, or some intervention by the TA or instructor.


Guidelines for Online Communication

Know your context

  • Introduce yourself
  • Remember that culture influences communication style and practices. Stay open, ask questions, and avoid assumptions.
  • Instructors will usually set the tone for the group, and provide guidance/guidelines.
  • Familarize yourself with UBC’s policies on Responsible Use of Technology

Remember the human

  • We all come with personalities. Remember, there’s a person behind the words. Ask for clarification before making judgments.
  • Check your tone before you publish: will everyone understand what you’re saying?
  • Respond to people using their names.
  • Remember that culture, and even gender, can play a part in how people communicate.
  • Avoid jokes and sarcasm, especially online. It’s easy for your intention to get lost without your body language.

Text has permanence

  • What you say online is difficult to retract later. Be judicious.
  • Consider your responsibility to the group and the learning environment.
  • If you are working collaboratively, agree on ground rules for text communication. Will you be formal or informal?

Research before you react

  • Accept and forgive mistakes.
  • Consider your responsibility to the group and to the learning environment.
  • Seek clarification before reacting.

Ask your instructor for guidance

Respect privacy and original ideas

  • Use direct quotes before responding to a specific point made by someone else.
  • Ask the author of an email before forwarding it.

Sometimes, online behavior can appear so disrespectful and even hostile that it requires attention and follow up. In this case, let your instructor know right away so that the right resources can be called upon to help.