19. December 2022

The science behind async collaboration, part 1: grounding in communication

In this post, we look at what makes people understand each other during a dialogue or discussion. What makes communication successful and seamless? For that, let’s look at the concept of grounding in communication, as described for example by Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan in their paper (here is a link to the paper) titled “Grounding in Communication” in 1991. One of the main problems in a discussion is that we (can) never really say everything we would need to say to be perfectly understood by everybody. Yet we are productive (hopefully), so there definitely is common understanding. Clark and Brennan look at the mechanics of how this happens, and why it is so difficult. At the end, we look at the mechanics we implement with Imaranda to make understanding happen in online settings.

So what is grounding and why is it hard?

In a nutshell the paper proposes that in order to reach a common ground or a common understanding, individuals have to collect and establish mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions, that’s the goal of any discussion. This common understanding is brought about by continuously presenting and reacting to thoughts. By signaling acceptance, a line of thought can be moved to the common ground. Luckily, we humans have developed many different ways to signal acceptance, e.g. through a variety of gestures or short responses. The exact way in which an individual conveys acceptance in a group may differ due to various factors; the topic of discussion, amount of experience, level of complexity are a few of the factors that might influence the way acceptance is presented. Sometimes, people may also signal acceptance too early, be it because of misunderstanding or social pressure or other factors.

As a matter of fact, establishing actual common ground in a conversation is quite hard, even when people are talking in person. This becomes even more difficult when conversations need to happen online and people cannot really use as many visual cues of conveying acceptance as they could in an in person setting. The topic being discussed in the conversation, and its complexity, creates further nuances in establishing common ground between people. The more complicated the topic the longer it takes to understand the thoughts of others and signal acceptance. To add one more layer of complexity, participants in a group discussion / brainstorming may come from different cultural backgrounds and / or may have different personality types. This makes both presenting and accepting lines of thought harder for a group as a whole, be it in person or online.

Streamlining understanding is usually achieved by what we call “culture” in teams. In this case, culture is the shared understanding of how to communicate something, of what is acceptable and what is not, of when to communicate and of what the overall goal is when communicating. At this point it’s probably clear why discussions are still held in person if possible in so many teams: because anything else makes understanding each other just even more difficult. Reducing meetings is talked about a lot but they are still so prevalent, discussions are often not that productive but still make up most of the meetings. There has to be an easier way!

And what if we tackled each of these points within a single tool?

Now to our grand conclusion: these challenges can actually be tackled! We created Imaranda with the vision of making group discussions and collaborations easier for everybody. In regards to common ground, we had two main insights: you have to be able to react to a line of thought at any small step, and putting understandability first can drastically improve the outcome. With Imaranda, people can easily present their ideas and thoughts in their own time, without needing to focus on body language or cues to fully grasp contexts. And without the pressure to react immediately. Imaranda boards enable teams to establish common ground around their most complicated problems, have discussions asynchronously, and reach actionable results. Our boards do this using an AI that guides participants and structures discussions automatically.

If you are interested in boosting your team's happiness and productivity, just drop us a word on info@imaranda.com. Follow us on LinkedIn to know more about Imaranda.