How technical leaders can communicate more effectively by using the word "and"

When confronted with a distinctly different point of view, try responding with the word 'and' instead of 'or,' and see where the conversation will lead you.

Photo of an iPad displaying a hand-drawn gauge with a red "OR" gate on the left and a green "AND" gate on the right; with a yellow arrow on the gauge leaning strongly toward the "AND" indicator.
Photo: Andy Wolber

Over the years, I've learned from all sorts of mistakes I've made when communicating with people who haven't focused as much on technology as me. I've learned not to share absolutely every possible way to solve a problem, but instead list two or three best options. I've learned not to list all of the implementation details, but to summarize the resources and time required. And I've learned to always spell out acronyms and to attempt to explain complex topics in plain language.

I still have one communication challenge to overcome: Too often, when people suggest a course of action I don't like, my instinct is to reply "No" followed by an explanation. Worse, I sometimes start my reply with "Or..."

When I start with "Or," I create a problem. Just like on a logic board, the word "or" creates a situation where either you "or" I can be right. No matter how minor an issue, we are now in a battle. Either you OR I must win: Let's argue.

Better things happen when I respond with "Yes, and..." This sets up a different scenario. The "Yes," acknowledges that I've heard you--at least on some level. The "and" allows me to offer an additional idea, and one that doesn't set up a battle.

In the past month, I encountered the following three opportunities to choose an "and" over an "or" response.

Different meanings

As I started to speak at a conference session, a participant raised their hand and asked, "Where's your handout? Showing things on the screen isn't accessible."

But I didn't have any paper to share, since I rarely distribute documents at a conference, class, or meeting. I could only offer links--a short URL, a QR code, and a recent Tweet--all of which pointed to the content we were about to discuss.

SEE: How to make Google Sites easier to share: 6 tips

I responded, "Yes, I understand. And..." then noted several reasons I put information online. A printed handout isn't accessible to anyone not in the room. Links are harder to follow from a printed page. Text and images on a printed page can only be magnified, not dynamically re-sized. It isn't easy to turn the text on a printed page into speech.

To the questioner, accessibility meant a printed page. To me, accessibility meant content posted online.

Different goals

I received an email from a colleague who suggested that I hold a workshop for leaders in a small town who were interested in becoming social media "experts" for their organizations. Another colleague offered to help these leaders create social media plans and campaigns.

I responded, "Yes, I could. And..." then noted the many strategy guides for specific services already online, as well as the many technical guides with advice on how to create effective posts, images, or videos. My advice for social media is simple: Find people who share things that interest you, and follow them--and only share things you really care about.

My colleagues focused on social media as a marketing channel. I focus first on social media as a learning community.

Different process

Conference organizers ask people to hold questions until after a speaker concludes remarks. Their intent is to make things easier for the speaker and to prevent vocal participants from monopolizing the presentation with interjected questions or comments.

I responded, "Yes, that's fine. And..." then asked everyone to reach for their phones in order to comment on a question--all at once. Typically, I use Mentimeter to display a question on a screen to which everyone can respond. This allows everyone to ask a question or add a comment, but without the need to hand a microphone to a participant. Instead, people tap on a phone, tablet, or laptop and their comments are projected on the screen.

Without an audience feedback tool, a presentation followed by a question and answer session works well. With the use of such a tool, a presenter can assess and address concerns throughout the course of a conversation.

Your experience?

What communication mistakes have you learned from discussing technical matters? Share a short summary of something you learned--either in the discussion below or on Twitter (@awolber).

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