Shared language isn't enough

Author Image By Ben Ford 3 minute read

Everyone knows teams need a shared language for effective communication, especially when you’re collaborating across functions or specialities. It’s something that the military instills from the earliest stages of training. The shared language, structure and process of communications and orders is critical in creating clarity out of chaos.

There’s an extra dimension to this that I often see tripping up tech teams though. This happens frequently when technical and non-technical people collaborate, but I’ve also happend during intra-team conversations. It happens even when there is a clear shared language and understanding of the domain. The issue is:

Different mental tool sets and preferences

How many times have you seen this play out:

We should do this quite general thing

Person A.

But what about this very specific detail

Person B.

and so on round and round until the meeting ends.

What’s often happening here is that person A and person B have different natural tendencies in how they process information. The field of NLP refers to these as submodalities. Here are a few pairs of opposing submodalities I see a lot:

  • Abstract thinking vs Concrete examples
  • Top down (deconstruction into components) vs Bottom up (construction from existing parts)
  • Thinking aloud vs Processing internally and synthesising an answer later
  • Intuition vs Logic (Kahneman's Thinking fast and slow)
  • Introvert vs Extrovert

The key thing to realise here is that these are not fixed ways of interacting with the world. They’re not black and white polar opposites either. It’s really more of a multi dimensional spectrum upon which individuals have the freedom to move, but have their comfortable spots to hang out. Harnessing people’s contributions from different parts of the search space leads to better outcomes and more rounded solutions (diversity FTW)

So how can we get these different types of thought working together? I have a few tips for helping people navigate these communication difficulties. In no particular order:


Many people may not be aware of the underlying differences in communications style. Have a conversation about them and learn to recognise when people are talking past each other.

Mix it up:

Challenge yourself or others to move out of their cognitive comfort zone and try to approach a problem from a different part of the spectrum.


Structure your meetings and project kick offs so that each different view point is heard and people from different parts of the submodality spectrum can participate on their own terms. Here’s a rough structure I’ve found to work well when deciding what to work on:

Context/Problem statement

What’s the current situation and what tension are we addressing


What’s the concrete solution being proposed. This can be prepared in advance

Implementation/execution outline

Think through constraints and come up with an implementation plan

Questions and objections

A chance for everyone to have their say, and share their observations

Implications/trade offs

Keeps a record of what concerns the solution doesn’t address, basically things that might cause WTF moments later on :-)

Let me know what you think!