Communicating via IRC/Slack


I’ve used messaging tools like IRC and Slack at work every day for the last 11+ years. For much of that time, I was working remotely. Even my co-workers, working in offices, used messaging tools as much as I did.

When I first started working for Mozilla and visited one of the main offices, it was weird to see this happening. People sitting a few desks away from each other were chatting via messaging instead of just speaking. There are many reasons why this happens, but a primary outcome was that it allowed remote workers to be included in almost all discussions.

Spending so much time in messaging tools has downsides. Communicating efficiently via text-based messaging requires learning how to be a better communicator. Text-based messaging loses almost all the tone and nuance of a spoken conversation. A lot of context and expression happens via non-verbal communication. That is missing from text-based messaging and it can lead to communication problems.

Assume people are generally good: It’s easy to read something and assume the worst. This generally doesn’t end well.

  • You’re disrupting a person’s workflow. You don’t know what they are doing or their mood. Be gentle, not demanding.
  • When things start to get complicated, confusing or heated, switch to face-to-face or video chat.
  • Make your intent clear. When people are left to infer, things can go poorly. For example:
      me: Is your project almost finished?
    them: (is he asking for status or thinking I'm too slow?)

Be careful delivering critical feedback: Giving someone feedback can be tricky in face-to-face conversations. Over text messaging, it can be dangerous. It’s easy for feedback to be seen as a personal attack.

  • Use questions, not statements. This encourages more discussion and doesn’t put people on the defensive as much.
  • Use examples of your own failures. Show you know people make mistakes.
  • Focus on the outcome, not the current implementation. Are we getting to the outcome we want?
  • Use ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ when possible. We are in this together.

Be ready to moderate: Sometimes people aren’t on the same page. If you see a conversation getting heated, try to diffuse it. It’s important to keep communication channels as a ‘safe space’ for everybody.

  • Use private channels to let people know a conversation is off-track. People can be unaware how badly things have become.
  • Be public when needed. Other people in the channel will benefit from knowing the limits of unacceptable behavior.
  • Moderation is a form of critical feedback. See above.

Not everyone will get the joke: Using humor over text-based messaging can backfire. Trying to be funny can lead to situations where no one is laughing, or even worse, people could be offended. Use caution.


Also published on Medium.