Now We’re Talking
“We need to work on our communication”
This is probably one of the most common things we hear when working with groups.
In its simplest form, communication is really just the exchanging of information. However, it’s rarely that straightforward. “Communication” is really a catch-all for many different types, formats, and styles. We could be talking about email etiquette or we could be talking about a communication tree. So when groups tell me they need to work on “communication”, my follow up question is always, “What does communication mean to you?” What I’ve found is that there are a few crucial kinds of communication that groups typically want to focus on developing:
Information Exchange – This is just what it sounds like. I have important information that you need and I need to effectively deliver that information to you. This kind of dissemination of information happens daily in our organizations – between team members, between committees, between departments, between levels of hierarchy – without it, literally nothing would get done and no one would know what was going on. Groups tend to get frustrated when these messages aren’t delivered clearly, in a timely manner, or to the correct recipient. What’s interesting about this communication breakdown, is that it’s often not a communication problem, it’s actually an accountability problem. We know the proper channels and procedures and we just don’t use them, or don’t use them efficiently. Challenges with information exchange can be resolved by clarifying expectations, strengthening communication channels, and encouraging individual and group accountability for these processes.
Listening – There are studies that suggest that 45% of the time we spend communicating is actually spent on listening. There are also studies that show that even with all of that time spent on listening, we aren’t actually all that great at it. This can stem from a number of factors: we aren’t interested in the information, we think we already know the information, we are listening to respond, or we are distracted. Listening is a process that takes attention and energy to do well and most of us are pretty lazy listeners. Many of us have probably been told that the solution is “active listening”. The practice of active listening helps us to be fully present and engaged in conversations, but that’s really only one part of the bigger picture. There are other types or “positions” of listening that help us attend to information and people differently depending on the situation. If we listen from an Empathetic position, we are able to better support and care for others. When we listen from a Reductive position, we are able to listen for points and solutions. Learning how and when to utilize these positions will make us more effective and efficient listeners and more attentive and responsive teammates.
Feedback – We tend to confuse feedback with things like performance reviews or other evaluations. While those things may be a part of our organizational structure, where groups actually struggle is with peer-to-peer feedback conversations. These conversations are informal, corrective in nature, and honestly make people uncomfortable. People choose not to give feedback for a variety of reasons, but one of the main concerns is a fear of negatively affecting the relationships that are involved. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a catch-22, if we don’t give feedback we also run the risk of damaging those relationships because of things left unsaid. Really great feedback is able to correct an action while also preserving our relationships. In fact, it should make them better. It’s almost a kind of art form, but we are never really taught how to do it well. Luckily, it’s something we can learn how to do but first we have to make feedback a priority. At Leadership Inspirations, staff members engage in their first feedback conversations at their staff training. They share with each other how they like to give and receive feedback and then have the opportunity to experience the process themselves. These conversations become a regular and natural part of working together and help to normalize and establish safe and best practices. This is a very involved process that takes time and energy, but the results allow your group to continue to learn, improve, and grow together.
Conflict Resolution – We often find that this communication breakdown is closely connected to feedback. When teammates don’t engage in effective conflict resolution, we may see quite toxic forms of communication between members taking place like gossip, complaints, arguments, and excuses. Usually, the underlying causes of conflict can be addressed with a healthy feedback conversation, but it is important to note that we all have our own natural approaches to conflict that will affect our communication through the process. Thomas-Killman’s Conflict Modes model explores these styles and challenges us to think about how to consciously change our style to fit the situation. There are some conflicts that are probably best Accommodated, but there are others that need a more Competing style in order for them to be resolved. Practicing this kind of adaptability allows us to capitalize on conflict as a positive force for change or transformation instead of letting it undermine the group’s success together.
Perspective-Taking – We are all guilty of a “be like me” mindset. It’s our brain’s natural tendency to think that people are or should be like us. This phenomenon is what makes us confused when someone misunderstands or misinterprets something we say. This happens because everyone operates from their own, unique perspectives. It’s difficult to put ourselves in the position of others because we have to make a lot of inferences about what they might need. Instead of making stereotyped or incorrect assumptions, perspective-taking asks us to really think about the limitations of our knowledge so that we can ask good questions to get the answers we need to make intentional and considerate choices in our communications. When we can adopt the perspectives of others, or do our best to, we can avoid unnecessary miscommunication. It may be something as simple as just being more detailed when giving instructions!
The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw is known for having said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. I really do believe that this is the root of all problems in communication. “Communication”, in some form or another, becomes such a regular part of our existence that we assume it’s automatic or unequivocal, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Communication is a complex, nuanced process that looks different for every person, relationship, team, and organization. It’s one of the most common things groups want to work on because it is really hard to do well all the time. Those groups also know that it’s one of the most crucial factors affecting our group dynamics and success. If we spend time developing this skill, like we do technical training, we can transform the way that we work together in our teams. Check out our Leadership Lesson below for teambuilding activities that will help you get started!
Teambuilding activities are a great way to practice our methods of communication in a safe and relatively low risk environment. Try these activities to improve in each of the areas we discussed above:
Recreate another team’s structure
Try to win your argument about anything
Draw what your partner describes to you
Lower the hula hoop to the ground quickly and evenly
Put the pictures in order without showing them to each other
*Meet the Author*
Caelan Cooney is the Program Coordinator for Leadership Inspirations and spends most of her time helping to create meaningful programming and content. She got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student, and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Education. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts.