Several years ago, on a medical relief trip in Honduras, a relative of mine was working in a makeshift pharmacy filling prescriptions written by the team’s doctor. The instructions for one patient included the rather simple directive to wash his wound thoroughly with soap. Even though this relative speaks Spanish, he defaulted to a variation of what felt natural and told the patient to wash with “sopa,” which is actually the Spanish word for soup. Seeing a confused look on the patient’s face, he realized his mistake and quickly rephrased telling the man to wash with “jamón,” which means ham. Luckily, he found his way to “jabón,” the Spanish word for soap, and avoided sending the poor patient home to take a bath in soup and ham.
If you have ever traveled to a country in which the native language is different from your own, you likely have a similar story to tell. This type of confusion is common when attempting to speak in unfamiliar language; speaking a different language can create a barrier to effective communication. Oftentimes, however, we ignore less obvious barriers that exist between us and members of our team. Different personalities, values, moods, backgrounds, motives, and goals can and do create barriers to effective communication. Teams who recognize these challenges, and work to overcome them, are much more likely to accomplish their stated purpose in a fulfilling way.
Communication is a broad topic, and much too big to tackle in one blog. However, if your team is struggling to communicate well, the following tips are a good place to start.
- Poor communication may be a symptom of a deeper issue. Many communication challenges can be overcome through skill development. However, there are times when communication itself is not the root problem. When trust in a team or relationship is low, communication is almost never effective. Assuming the worst, questioning motive, using a passive aggressive or critical tone, and gossiping are all signs that relational trust is low. In this case, focusing on communication won’t help. Work toward building trust and you may find that communication improves on its own.
- Recognize and respect different communication styles. Communication is not one size fits all. In the same way that language differences affect our ability to understand and be understood, our personalities and behavioral traits also affect the way we send and receive messages. Some people like bullet points and some like prose. There are people who want you to ask about their weekend, while others would prefer you get right to the point. By learning the style and preference of each team member and modifying your approach accordingly, you improve the likelihood of communicating effectively. Assessments such as DiSC and Myers Briggs can be very helpful in revealing innate characteristics that impact the way you, and those around you, relate to the world.
- Begin with a question. Imagine you are in a team meeting and someone presents an idea. You respond with, “I don’t think that will work because . . .” The whole conversation is now adversarial and the person sharing the idea is likely to become defensive. Instead, what if you asked something like, “Help me understand how . . .?” or “How do you see that impacting x, y, or z?” Now you are gathering data and getting all the information on the table. The person who shared the idea knows you are seeking to fully understand his or her perspective before providing your own; any disagreement that follows (and disagreement is not bad) is likely to be much more productive.
- Remember the goal. Communication in teams is a means to an end. We communicate to build relationships, share ideas, and ultimately accomplish the purpose of the team. Instead of focusing on being heard or being right, focus on the success of the team and the organization. Whether we realize it or not, poor communication is often the result of choosing to focus on ourselves rather than serve others.
Effective communication makes teams faster, better, and more fulfilling. How can your team improve?