“If you want to learn one thing that will open up the most doors, it would be mastering the art of low-context communication.” Darren Murph
Known as the “Oracle of remote work,” and author of the pioneering Remote Work Playbook, Darren Murph, believes low-context communication is “the Dark Horse skill of the future.”
The concept of low-context communication isn’t new. So, why is it now becoming such a sought-after skill?
To answer this, we need to take a tour of the modern workplace.
Time to meet Lucia.
Style over substance: When (bad) communication kills collaboration
Lucia was excited about the upcoming launch of the company’s new product feature. The development stage had gone well. But following feedback from their beta testing, there’d been a shift in direction. With deadlines looming, she needed to update everyone working on the project. An in-person group meeting would have been her preference. She found communicating through video calls stressful. (The dynamics of the team were hard to judge through a computer screen. And sometimes, she wasn’t sure how her message had been received.) But, while she was based in South America, half of her multinational team worked remotely in Europe. And given the tight timeframes, she had no choice but to make the meeting virtual.
The other challenge was scheduling the call. Given the vastly different time zones, finding a slot that worked for everyone was impossible. The only answer was to record the meeting so those that couldn’t attend live could catch up afterwards.
A few minutes before the call, Lucia jotted down a quick list of what she wanted to say. She preferred to speak naturally, without too many prompts, so she kept her outline brief.
The call went as well as could be expected. As a global brand, the company policy was to speak in English. But, like most of her team, it was her second language, and sometimes she struggled to find the right translation. She also had to rush through some of the details at the end.
Over the next few days, Lucia was bombarded with queries and concerns. They ranged from how to access the recording of the meeting to what the new deadlines were and why the plans had changed.
Lucia may have spoken with her team. But despite her efforts, most of them still lacked clarity about the project. Ending up with more questions than they had answers, this frustrating scenario isn’t unique. Whether it’s due to geographical distance, cultural, time, or linguistic differences, personality, or communicational preferences, misunderstandings such as this occur regularly in teams.
Could low-context communication have changed the outcome? Let’s find out more.
High-context vs low-context communication: Why it’s time to lower your voice
Communication can make or break your business. It can either provide clarity and understanding. And go on to boost collaboration and productivity, creativity, engagement and, ultimately, profits. Or it can cause confusion and anxiety. The result? Delays, missed targets, low morale, high turnover (due to poor onboarding), a drop in customer confidence, or even damage to your corporate reputation.
With so much at stake, it pays to understand the barriers to effective communication. These are many and varied. But broadly speaking, they fall into one of three categories:
Cultural values, social norms, location, language, and even time zones can all have a bearing on how messages are delivered and received.
Different people have different communication preferences based on their own personal style or character traits.
There’s a common misconception that communication happens by default by simply talking (or writing). The truth is, communication isn’t about words, it’s about meaning.
So where does low-context vs high-context communication come in?
The concept stems from a cross-cultural communication framework developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Hall’s cross-cultural communication theory was that different cultures have different communication styles. Some prefer implicit, indirect communication. These so-called high-context cultures rely on body language, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, situation, and settings to communicate. Words are used flexibly. And relationships carry more weight than what’s being said.
Low-context cultures take the opposite approach. Low-context communication is straightforward, explicit. How does it work? You start by assuming that your target audience has little to no knowledge of what you are about to say. You then gather the information (for example, data and documents) needed to accurately support your message. And then use concise and exact words to deliver it. Part of this may involve elaborating or clarifying potentially ambiguous or unclear words or phrases. The result? Because information is directly conveyed, avoiding shared cultural or contextual knowledge, misunderstandings are vastly reduced. As Darren Murph explains:
“What that means is that you actually communicate with a very high degree of precision and detail. What is the objective of low-context communication? How do you know that you’ve done it right? If you’ve communicated in a way that enables someone to “loop” themselves into a project, instead of just providing enough information so that you still need a meeting for them to get up-to-speed on what you’re talking about. This is the big inflection point for communicating with low-context communication.”
On trend: The importance of low-context communication in the workplace of the future
When it comes to high-context vs low-context communication, there’s no right or wrong approach. In isolation, both can prove effective. But as workplaces evolve, high-context communication begins to lose its relevance. Idioms and idiosyncrasies create confusion in increasingly globalized and culturally mixed settings. And body language and tone of voice fail to translate across digital and asynchronous exchanges. In short, implicit is out, explicit is in.
The unambiguous, highly focused nature of low-context communication lends itself to many of the emerging trends associated with the modern workplace. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Hybrid and remote working
Return-to-office mandates may have hit the headlines recently, but for most corporate organizations, the workplace of the future is either fully or partly remote. (The popularity of GitLab’s open-source Remote Playbook speaks for itself.) The benefits of remote and hybrid working are well documented. But remote work communication and collaboration can be challenging. And it demands a specific and targeted approach.
With its focus on concise wording and explicit messaging, low-text communication meets the ‘remote work communication’ brief. It reduces “lost in translation” episodes for employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. And it ensures that a reliance on digital technologies doesn’t affect understanding or meaning.
Asynchronous and flexible working
If remote working is the first step towards flexibility in the workplace, asynchronous working is the second. A reaction in part to a globalized workforce distributed across time zones, non-linear working gives employees more control over their workflow. More efficient, better for productivity, and great for employee wellness, it looks set to overtake the traditional 9 to 5. But it relies on effective asynchronous communication to deliver those benefits.
So what does effective asynchronous communication look like? In short, it looks like low-context communication. Non-linear workdays mean that real-time meetings with live Q&As and on-the-spot follow-up discussions aren’t an option. Low-context communication works well in this instance because its purpose is to provide complete clarity and detail without the need for a follow-up meeting.
Despite some initial scaremongering and understandable anxiety, AI tools have the potential to vastly improve workflows and outputs. But only if employees know how to release that potential. As the impact of generative AI automation and enablement on businesses snowballs, communication skills need to adapt to survive. And being able to develop concise, well-thought through, unambiguous and accurate AI prompts is key to this. The principles behind a low-content communication sync seamlessly with this approach.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
Companies with clear DEI values (and a workforce that reflects those values) are stronger and more successful than those without. So it’s no surprise that the workplace of the future is a diverse workplace. But diverse teams will only thrive with the right communication strategy in place. Jargon, idioms, obscure cultural references, unconsciously biased language, physical gestures, and body language can, at best, create barriers to communication. At worst, they can create offence and cause distress. Unlike high-context communication, low-context communication eliminates all of these subjective elements.
Pace of change
The world of work is changing at speed. And, powered by technology, the pace of change is only going to increase. The result? Workplace comms need to be efficient and effective. Back-and-forth exchanges won’t fit the model. Messages need to be clear and actionable from the outset.
Communication also needs to be timely. Waiting for live, in-person meetings to be arranged is becoming increasingly unfeasible. Low-text communication works well in this context. It streamlines and supercharges the efficient exchange of information. And cuts out unnecessary background noise and clutter.
Employee experience is gaining importance as organizations recognize its impact on engagement and retention. What does that look like in practice? A positive workplace culture, meaningful work, and opportunities for professional growth. Low-context communication underpins this by giving employees the information they need to function, thrive, and grow into their roles, with minimal fuss.
The green agenda’s here to stay. Organizations are becoming more environmentally conscious, incorporating sustainable practices into their operations and workplace design. Low-context communication may not be directly linked to sustainability. But its emphasis on digital comms and the efficient exchange of data, supports the ethos and reinforces the messaging.
Like DEI, employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of prioritizing wellbeing in the workplace. Uncertainty and lack of information can all negatively impact employees’ mental health. Stress, anxiety, fear, and cognitive overload are just some of the common symptoms demonstrated by employees whose wellbeing has been neglected. Low-context communication provides transparency. And keeps wellbeing on track by delivering clear and comprehensive information in an openly accessible format.
No agenda, no attenda: 10 tips for low-context communication
One of the key takeaways from Darren Murph’s ‘Defying Distance with Distributed Teams’ podcast is his “no agenda, no attenda” message. Part of TalentLMS’ ‘Keep It Simple’ series, in his episode Darren refers specifically to the absolutely critical need for an agenda when holding meetings. But his message also speaks more generally to the need for preparation and forethought when it comes to low-context communication in general. With this in mind, here are some tips for low-context communication. Use these to plan your strategy and prepare your delivery approach.
Be direct and specific
Clearly articulate your message, avoiding ambiguity or vague language. State your points directly and provide explicit details to ensure understanding.
Support your message with tangible examples to illustrate your points. This helps to make your communication more concrete and reduces the chances of misinterpretation.
Don’t make assumptions
Avoid assuming that others share the same background or context. Provide the necessary information and background to ensure that your message is comprehensible to a diverse audience.
Provide clear instructions
When giving instructions, be precise and detail-oriented. Clearly outline expectations, steps, and any relevant deadlines to avoid confusion.
Steer clear of vague language or statements that could be interpreted in multiple ways. Strive for clarity to leave little room for misinterpretation.
Use written communication effectively
In written communication, such as emails or documentation, organize information logically and use straightforward language. Bullet points or numbered lists can enhance clarity.
Consider cultural differences
Recognize that individuals from different cultures may have varying communication preferences. Be adaptable and sensitive to cultural nuances.
Summarize key points
Reiterate important information at the end of a conversation or document. This reinforces critical details and ensures that the main message is clear and understood.
Be mindful of tone
While low-context communication emphasizes clarity, be mindful of your tone. Aim for a respectful and considerate tone to maintain objectivity.
Use visual aids
Incorporate charts, graphs, or slides, to complement verbal or written communication. Visuals can enhance understanding, especially in complex or detailed discussions.
Great communicators are made, not born: How to improve low-context communication skills
Hall’s theory links communication styles (specifically high and low-context communication) to cultural standards and expectations. But that doesn’t mean the techniques can’t be learned and applied universally. Low-context communication combines a specific set of soft skills and hard skills. All of which can be cultivated and perfected with the right training program.