Improving Communication within Teams

Simple – and Powerful – Steps for Improving Communication within Teams

Written by on November 4, 2015

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.” – Psychologist and author Dr. Rollo May

Communication can be a powerful tool for teamwork, but it can just as easily lead us astray. When teams fall into communication “traps,” their efforts to work effectively together and to achieve that sense of mutual valuing can be derailed. What are the most common pitfalls – and how can teams learn to avoid them?

Common Pitfalls

No matter what your profession, effective communication is critical to building an effective team. But communication can be a minefield, and missteps are frequent. Some of the most pervasive communications issues workplace teams face include:

  • Making Assumptions. Assumptions are at the core of many misunderstandings. We think we know what another person means. We think we know what the team is saying or that we’ve reached an agreement. Teams can go in different directions thinking they are on the same page, and they’re really reading from entirely different books!

    As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” While it is human to make assumptions, leaping to conclusions without checking or clarifying can impede progress, lead to hurt feelings, and erode trust and confidence.

  • Avoiding the “Elephant in the Room.” We’ve all been in this situation before. Everyone knows – and can feel – issues or tension in the room, yet no one addresses it. No one speaks up and says, “We need to talk about this problem,” or “We need to clear the air.” These elephants are a serious barrier to clear communication. Obvious and underlying tensions result in distracted team members, increased tension and nerves, and prevent teams from achieving progress and moving forward.

  • Excluding Team Members. Susan Cain’s book Quiet brought introversion into the spotlight (perhaps not an introvert’s favorite place!), and has helped leaders become more aware of the differences among their team members. While some individuals speak out eagerly and often, thinking as they talk, others need to process internally. In fast-paced meetings, this may cause introverts, and their ideas, to be excluded.

  • Falling into Communication Ruts. Over time, people fall into communications habits, often without even realizing they have become routine. These can be external behaviours: for instance, the extrovert who is always talking and dominating meetings, or the introvert who doesn’t speak up quickly enough and then finds out it’s too late. But habits can also be internal responses: for instance, when that dominant personality tells the team what to do – again – and others think, “I’ll deal with it later,” or “It’s not worth the aggravation to talk to this person now. I’ll just go along.”

    These communication ruts mean that issues become accepted as normal, and are never clearly addressed to improve team dynamics and functionality.

So how can teams curb these behaviours and learn to communicate more effectively?

  • Coaching. In these kinds of situations, having an objective third party can be invaluable to helping a team climb out of the pitfalls. Both one-on-one and team coaching can be incredibly helpful to improve team communications. In some cases, the leader, as part of the team, may have also fallen into one or all of these traps themselves. A coach can help all team members improve their own personal communication practices, as well as the overall team dynamic.
  • Observing. A powerful technique for a coach to begin improving team communications is to simply observe current practices. For instance, a coach may notice that one person dominates the conversation, certain people never speak up, or direction is consistently coming solely from the leader. Noticing these behaviours, and bringing them to the attention of the team, is a critical starting point. *Remember… a coach shares observations directly related. to the change the team wants to achieve. Focus is on their goals, and how to move them along the path they’ve chosen.
  • Reflecting. Asking open-ended questions can help the team better understand the issues and their impact. How are these behaviours impacting your team? How are they affecting your ability to achieve your objectives? The questions are non-judgmental, but allow the coach to act a mirror, reflecting what is going on with the team. Understanding the entire team’s perspective, and dynamic, helps each team member understand the bigger picture at work.

Clients are experts in their business. The coach isn’t there to talk about their products, tools, website or widgets; she or he is there to notice behaviours or tendencies that the team may not notice themselves. This can help open up their thinking, help them gain perspective, and provide opportunities for them to make choices that will strengthen their ability to work and achieve together. Communication will always be tricky – but when we take steps to notice, question, and make choices to improve, team relationships and results can soar.