I am someone who finds it quite easy to put my thoughts into words. I have scored high in communication in many assessments and skills inventories. I will even sit in public places like coffee shops and restaurants hearing interactions, knowing exactly what the breakdown in communication is and how it could be fixed.
Despite this strength and even burden at times, I have had a few experiences when I had no clue how to communicate. For example, when sitting in an optometrist’s office, I am stuck on what words to use to paint a picture for them of how hard it is to focus on things up close due to astigmatism or how I see the numbers and letters differently they are projecting, all because of one limiting factor – I have only ever looked out of my own eyes. I can tell you how one bowl of salsa differs from another (because trust me, I have had a million), but trying to explain how I see is paralyzing.
Communication on our teams is vital, as vital as feeling pain in your ankle so you know to slow down and pay attention that it might be broken. But communicating, especially when we can get rushed and focused on the work can become challenging and even paralyzing because our plates get full, our paces get rushed, and we can only see through our own eyes.
Six Communication Tools to Create a Healthier Team
1. Establish quarterly feedback cycles
My organization, like many others, conducts annual performance reviews where we try to gather 360-degree data around each team member. We ask collaborators, direct reports, and colleagues to comment on this team member’s performance, character, and competency. I learned that waiting a whole year as a supervisor wasn’t enough for my team. We tend to try to gather this data at one of the busiest times in the year and I wanted to spread out when we gather feedback, both to have more data and to be able to coach employees sooner on feedback from their colleagues rather than waiting until the end of the year.
I reach out to my team once a quarter and ask about a team member:
- What is this person doing well in their role you would like to celebrate?
- What is this person doing in their role that they could grow in?
- What other information would you like to give?
- What am I doing as a supervisor that has been helpful for you?
- What could I do to support and lead you better?
- What else should I know?
I have found this to be greatly beneficial for our team not only to gather data in a way that more internal processors on my team can take the time they need to think and type out a response, but also to keep those lines of communication open throughout the year. This prevents directing feedback on colleagues in the wrong direction.
2. Start with the question, “What do you value most here?”
This sounds like a touchy question but has proven to be very helpful to my team, even in small tasks. I once was collaborating with a teammate to reorganize our digital file storage. He and I tended to approach tasks as total opposites so we started this project by me asking, “What do you value most here?” His greatest value was that nothing would be lost that would one day be helpful. My greatest value was that our system would be user-friendly and not so bogged down by old files. I, being quick to want to jump to efficiency, could have moved so quickly that my teammate felt really concerned about what he valued most, but instead we found a way to reorganize our digital storage in a way that kept both of our values at the forefront.
3. Reflect to make sure you understand
This is a counseling tool that has been crucial for me as a leader, taking a moment following group discussion to say, “What I’m hearing is . . .” This tool is helpful both to make sure you are understanding what an individual or group is saying, or even to communicate a consensus the group may have already met without realizing.
Sometimes this is as simple as saying, “What I’m hearing is everyone wants pizza for lunch, but we need to find somewhere with a gluten-free option.” Other times, I’ve said, “What I’m hearing you say is you’re frustrated because of . . .” And an employee has responded, “It’s not just that I’m frustrated. I need you to address [another employee] not delivering.”
Simply speaking back the message we receive from our teams or direct reports can offer great clarity and communicate that we not only care to understand, but will act on what they tell us they need.
4. Before correcting behavior, think through a breakdown in communication
This can be challenging in practice, but when something goes wrong try to take a step back before correcting someone’s behavior or performance. Ask yourself, “did they have all the information they needed? Was this clearly asked of them? Were there any mixed messages?” When all of these point to a yes, the next tool can be greatly helpful!
5. Utilize the phrase, “I’m curious about . . .”
This is a phrase I’ve picked up from reading Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. This phrase prompts the conversation without necessitating an answer or pointing fingers. It simply just opens the door. For example, “Hey team, I’m curious about why this customer isn’t satisfied with the product they received.” Then listen for the full story.
I have learned when I wait to listen and lead with curiosity, I can gain much better perspective on the full process that occurred or breakdown in communication.
This also often allows for employees to offer their own self-evaluation or means of improvement for the future they have drafted that we can consider together, rather than me leading in with corrections and assumptions.
6. Don’t be afraid of overcommunicating
I have found 9 times out of 10, that the gaps in my communication are things I think are being said all the time. The truth is that I am hearing these things said or thinking about them, but I need to actually make sure the big things are said and shared in an open forum for communication or questions. I’ve also found it helpful to offer, “I’m not withholding any information I have you don’t know about,” and seen this offer great comfort to my team, especially through navigating a pandemic. I think there can be a veil of assumed in-knowledge due to leadership positions that we can break with transparency and regular open communication of both the big and small things.
Improve Your Team’s Communication
I hope these six tools lead your team to healthier communication, or to the practices your team needs to best communicate. And over time and practice, you will never be able to see through their eyes, but you may become more familiar with their prescriptions. Let’s get the conversations going!