David Allen's methods for "Getting Things Done" have become time-honored techniques for turning words into action and streamlining communication. But on the surface, some of the methods can seem mechanical--and even a little rude. 

For example, there are times when Allen will send an email to his wife about getting wheatgrass for their dog, even when his wife is sitting in the same room. Ask him why, and he'll say, "Because if I don't, then she'll have to write it down." And since he and his wife are in alignment about processes--and they are by now accustomed to collaborating this way--well, once you get used to it, it's really not as inhuman as it might seem.

Conversation can be fun and it can be reassuring. But in the end, it's not always efficient. So here's the challenge: How can you create a workplace culture in which chats are useful, rather than wasteful? At the same time, how can you make sure the office doesn't become a library-like climate, where talkers are silenced as time-wasters and laughing loudly is frowned upon?

Hard as it may be to believe, this sort of balance is possible. Here are four techniques that can help: 

1. Change your meetings format. 

You know how it goes at meetings: Sometimes it's the first time you've been away from your desk all day. It's hard to resist the temptation to talk casually with coworkers. But what happens, more often than not, is the meeting itself doesn't get underway until 10 or 15 minutes after the appointed time. 

What's to be done? After all, it would be no fun--and difficult to enforce--a meetings culture permitting no time for personal chats or catching up. One technique experts recommend is a "warm-up" round: You go around the table, with participants sharing something from their life--either business or personal--taking no more than a minute, sometimes as little as 10 seconds if it's a large meeting. 

It breaks the ice, and it helps establish a tone that is efficient without being brusque. Of course, you need not be so formal about the ice-breaking. Meetings expert Michael Begeman suggests scheduling five or 10 minutes of open time at the start, where attendees talk about whatever they want. This window also allows attendees to vent about whatever's bugging them, allowing them to be more present when the meeting begins in earnest.  

2. Reduce reliance on jargon. 

In his new book, "Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It," consultant Phil Simon notes that too many communications include jargon, bogging down the give-and-take needed for efficient collaboration.

If there's too much jargon in an email exchange, that exchange lasts longer than it needs to, or it eventually has to become a clarifying conversation. That's a conversation that didn't have to happen if there was no confusing jargon in the first place. 

What to do? If you're a leader, you simply have to be more careful with your speech. "Many executives bastardize the language, and it's natural for underlings to ape the words and expressions of their superiors," Simon tells the MIT Sloan Management Review. "There's no reason to make things unnecessarily complicated. Period."

3. Postpone off-point conversations for a later time. 

Tangents can be fruitful, but they're seldom fast. The Young Entrepreneur Council recommends "parking" those tangents, so they can be discussed at proper length, at the appropriate time. "Too much rigidity can stifle creativity and ideas," notes the YEC's Patrick Linton, co-founder of Bolton Remote. "Too little and it turns into a brainstorming session versus a productive meeting. This hack works well to keep the balance."

4. Kill the useless phrases. 

Inc. columnist Sujan Patel recently listed 10 email phrases you could eliminate for brevity's sake. You could also apply his list to conversational habits. You might be surprised how many words and phrases--"Can I pick your brain?" or "I think..." or "I just..."--needlessly slow down your chats without adding any value to the exchanges.

Published on: Aug 25, 2015