The Key To Communication in Psychologically Safe Teams

Communication. Such a vast topic and one that’s undoubtedly cornerstone to the existence or absence of Psychological Safety. 

What does effective communication look like though?

Obviously communication has a text-book definition, but it also has a separate character depending on the group performing it. Exchanging information and comprehending each others’ meaning against a backdrop of good intention and willingness to have an open dialogue, is a functional definition but many other attributes or lack thereof may be intensely personal to the team. 

When we work with teams to start them on the path of increasing Psychological Safety we quickly uncover their communication styles and also -fodder for a whole other article- their fallacies. Unsurprisingly, the safer of teams all share some characteristics, they tend to be:

  • Extremely open – most will not shy away from humour, never worry about being politically correct and language is colourful and unencumbered;
  • At ease with their channels – whether it’s “voice” they use as they share a physical space, Slack, video conferencing or a combination of them all, these teams have a clear routine and are comfortable with it;
  • Intentional about frequency – these teams communicate outside of designated meetings and other ceremonies and do seek each other’s input often;
  • Comfortable with each other – their morale and level of engagement are high, and they have that air of team “je ne sais quoi” we are all striving to define where they have camaraderie, complicity, shared history and common references which shine through most interactions; 
  • Incorporating healthy conflict – these teams are never afraid of dissent, always open to debate and never dramatise or perceive conflict as a negative but as a natural and welcomed part of growth;
  • Emotionally invested in each other and intensely empathic.

The latter is the crux of the issue. In teams where that is absent, none of the ones above are possible. 

Where empathy is lacking or insufficient, the way they communicate, the frequency, the content and the intention are all continuously and negatively challenged, and teams find themselves constantly in search of process definition, while their exchanges are corseted, disputable and forced. Conflict is dreaded and avoided and when it arises anyhow, it’s often catastrophic and intensely traumatic, language is guarded and self-censored and of course, no one truly speaks up or is utterly honest, because they simply don’t trust their team members to “have their back” enough for vulnerability to be safely possible. 

Not only is empathy they most important of them all, but it is -thankfully- incidentally the lever we can do the most about in terms of bettering it and increasing it whereas all the other factors above, can’t be affected in its absence. 

In other words, if we want to better the communication of any team, what we can work on, in lieu of any rules or the process of communication in itself, is focusing on how empathic they are towards each other within their team and raising that level. 

Think about it – there isn’t anything that can’t be said or is taboo, nothing to avoid, no lips to be bitten when we deeply trust our dialogue partner. When we don’t worry how anything “lands”. We may still choose our words or our timings to fit their personality or even particular sensibilities, but out of consideration and care, not out of fear. Never out of fear. 

When we are measured in responses with good intentions it strengthens our practice of care and it’s a win. Losing happens when we do so because we are trying to avoid misinterpretation or because we impression manage. 

Contrary to what we are tempted to believe, agreement in itself is secondary and far less desirable than an appetite for healthy and open debate when there’s a bedrock of empathy and kindness to underpin it. If we could all tap into our reserves of “relationing” and care every time that we feel irritation or annoyance arise, we’d all be a lot more capable of real and effective communication and therefore performance.

Being intentionally and deeply kind, caring or empathic is not within most team’s bag of tricks though, and it takes work and training to be mindful of each other and comprehend commonalities enough to build a foundation of emotional investment, but it’s work that’s well worth it.

When team members communicate from a position of mutual understanding and consistently demonstrate caring compassion towards each other, it allows true openness, reinforces their sense of courage, increases their morale, nurtures continuous learning and ensures progress, solidifies their ability to last a unit and overall strengthens the team bubble thus enables Psychological Safety. 

We all know when we are fortunate enough to be part of a team where there’s that magic of truly open communication and where we can be so honest and authentic that it enables us to bring our best selves and do our best work. If we stopped to wonder how we feel about our team members when it happens, we’d see that we are firmly fond of each other and continuously invested in understanding and caring about each other’s feelings and well being. That state of team communication bliss doesn’t need to be accidental though, and we can and should work on creating that by design not only serendipity.

Mind your empathy this week and watch your communication get real as a result. 

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