Communication Dichotomies: balancing your tone

Communication Dichotomies: balancing your tone

Effective communication with fellow human beings can be challenging, especially for remote workers

At the start of this year, I read a book named "Effective Remote Work". This resource discusses the rise of remote work due to the pandemic, the key challenges of this transition, and provides practical tips for maintaining or even increasing productivity. My interest in this book was sparked mainly because my company had switched to fully remote operations for our developers and bioinformaticians since the pandemic began.

If you can afford this book, I highly recommend it. In one section, the author discusses the importance of consistency and discipline, suggesting that you strive to do your best each day while figuring out what works for you and making adjustments as needed. There's no need for rushed, heroic efforts. It's the steady, consistent work that benefits you most in the long run.

The author of the book is Dr. James Stanier and he has:

over a decade of experience with building people and software.

In this post, I want to explore a specific segment of the book with you, where the author describes some of the dichotomies that we need to consider when communicating. Let's start!

What are Dichotomies?

A dichotomy is a division or contrast between two things that are represented as being entirely different or opposite. In philosophy and logic, the dichotomy is the splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it's a process of grouping observations into two categories.

Examples of common dichotomies include good versus evil, left versus right, male versus female, nature versus nurture, etc. Dichotomous thinking, in psychology, is a cognitive distortion in which one tends to view the world in black and white, ignoring the complexities and gray areas of life.

I think this technique of using dichotomies is a very effective teaching method because it helps simplify complex concepts, especially when you're introducing a new topic. By breaking down a topic into two distinct, contrasting parts, we can more easily grasp the differences and similarities between them.

But we need to remember that in the real world, you will rarely see only two categories, so please be aware of the cognitive distortion from psychology!

Communicating with Humans

Independent of the way of communication you are using (e.g. face-to-face, email, instant messenger) you will be affected by the following dichotomies when communicating with beings embedded by emotions, especially humans. You will never have the perfect answer for how to be, act, and respond. There always will be trade-offs and you need to consider them to achieve the intended outputs. Below are the dichotomies the author describes in his book.

Fun x Noise

Injecting humor into a conversation can be positive, but the author points out that it can also create more 'noise' in written communication. After reflecting on this, I've come to believe that it's an aspect that needs to be considered in other forms of communication as well.

You've likely had a high school teacher who made many jokes during class, or perhaps you've watched a presentation where the only things you remember are funny anecdotes or moments.

Flexible Working x Communication out of Hours

When working remotely you can have colleagues that start earlier, later or even on different days, especially when the company has people working from different time zones (this is flexible working). Usually, the type of communication that works best is the asynchronous way, like emails, instant messages or even recorded videos.

The downside is that again, we are humans and everything today was designed to catch our attention. So, there is a chance that people will start feeling guilty for not logging in as soon as new notifications come. I think it relates to a well-known feeling: Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).

Friendliness x Lack of Assertiveness

There is often a delicate balance between friendliness and a lack of assertiveness. Being friendly and jovial certainly has its merits; it fosters a positive, collaborative work environment and builds strong interpersonal relationships. However, it's crucial to recognize that excessive friendliness can sometimes hinder our assertiveness, especially when there's a need to be decisive and get things done.

Imagine you're in a meeting and there's a critical decision to be made. If you're consistently friendly and light-hearted, your peers might not fully grasp the seriousness of the situation, and your key messages might get lost in the middle of the jovial atmosphere. On the other hand, if you assertively communicate your points, even if it's done in a more serious or direct tone, your messages will likely have more impact and be taken seriously.

Being Resolute x Being Overbearing

To fully comprehend this concept, I found it necessary to look up the definitions of "resolute" and "overbearing", likely because my first language is Portuguese. I'm aware that some of you also have primary languages other than English, so I thought it would be helpful to share these definitions here.

Resolute - typically refers to someone who is determined, steadfast, or unwavering. A resolute person is firm in their decisions and convictions, showing a strong will and determination. They are not easily swayed or distracted from their course of action or their beliefs. It's a little different from being assertive because assertiveness more directly involves communication and interpersonal interactions, while resoluteness relates more to personal determination and persistence.

Overbearing - is typically used to describe someone who is domineering or controlling in nature. An overbearing person tends to impose their will on others, often ignoring or dismissing the feelings, opinions, or desires of those around them. This characteristic is generally seen as negative because it can make others feel oppressed, belittled, or disrespected. Overbearing behavior often obstructs open communication and collaboration, as it creates an environment where only one voice or perspective (the overbearing individual's) is valued or considered.

Being resolute is important, but so is showing empathy, openness, and respect for others' perspectives. By blending firmness with empathy, you can lead and make decisions effectively while still fostering a collaborative and respectful atmosphere that values open communication. This balance not only helps get the work done but also builds stronger, more productive relationships within the team.

Process and Organization x Rigidity in Approach

Some people thrive in highly organized environments, finding comfort and clarity in well-defined processes. They carefully plan their work, categorizing tasks into neat structures, and diligently adhering to established procedures. This meticulous approach helps them manage complexity, meet deadlines, and maintain a high quality of work.

However, this methodical approach may inadvertently induce a sense of rigidity, especially for those who prefer a more spontaneous or fluid work style. For these individuals, an overemphasis on organization and process can seem overwhelming. They might perceive a structured work environment as being excessively bureaucratic, rigid, or dull.

Imagine being someone who just wants to dive in, get their hands dirty, and make things happen. For them, too many rules can feel like a problem, like something that's just slowing them down. They might feel their creativity is being suppressed or their momentum is being halted by an overwhelming amount of processes.

Too much structure can suffocate creativity and impede prompt action, while too little can lead to chaos and missed deadlines. It's about creating an environment where organization and spontaneity coexist harmoniously, where processes facilitate work without becoming obstacles, and where team members feel empowered to perform at their best, regardless of their preferred work style.

Humility and Humbleness x Passiveness

Humility and humbleness are generally seen as admirable qualities. They suggest a level of self-awareness and respect for others' viewpoints and ideas. A humble person acknowledges that they don't have all the answers and is open to learning from others. They willingly defer to others when it's appropriate, demonstrating respect and consideration in their interactions.

If you're always too humble, you might seem passive. This can happen if you always let others decide things to avoid fights. It's important to be nice, but if you're always agreeing, people might think you're not really part of the conversation.

Think about a time in a team meeting when you didn't share your ideas or always agreed with others. After a while, people may stop asking for your opinion. You might notice you don't help make decisions as much. That's why it's important to speak up, join in discussions, and help make decisions.

Detail-orientation x Dryness

Individuals who infuse their communication with a high level of detail showcase their diligence, thoroughness, and commitment to clarity and understanding. This meticulous attention to detail can lead to better-informed decisions, fewer misunderstandings, and a more robust knowledge base. The caveat is that over-emphasis on detail can sometimes lead to communication that feels excessively dry or dull.

Getting it right involves understanding your audience and their needs, delivering detailed information where necessary but also knowing when to provide a high-level overview or distill information into key points. This approach maintains clarity without sacrificing engagement, ensuring your message is both informative and engaging.


In this part, I'll just quote the author:

So there really is no right way of doing things that will please everyone. You have to ride the line among the dichotomies whenever you communicate and be mindful of the different ways in which you can be interpreted. It seems that in communication, as is the case in life, you just have to try your best. You can’t please everyone. - Chapter 8, Effective Communication Techniques, page 174

Are you mindful when communicating with others? Personally, I still find it a bit challenging, but I keep practicing!

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