Excellent Interpersonal Communication Requires a Safe Environment

In a previous post, I posited the seven things you should do for excellent interpersonal communication: create safety, ensure feedback loops are in place, encourage trust in others’ competence, implement stepped decision-making, involve bottom-up, use transformational leadership, and match stated and actual organizational culture. In this post, I delve deeper into the first task: create safety. In brief, this means colleagues need to feel free to tell each other what they observe and, from their expertise, make critical comments without chopping heads off or having their own heads chopped off. Safety also lays the basis for positive relations with one another. So, how do you create safety?

You are a role model

As leader, you are a role model for your team. You cannot expect team members to behave a certain way if you don’t follow your own rules. In a classic experiment, leaders were asked to manipulate the way they entered the work floor every morning. And lo and behold, team performance increased when the leader entered in an upbeat way. So: behave the way you want your team members to behave.

Change your culture

Edgar Schein suggests our Western culture is about telling instead of asking questions. When you lecture your colleague, you implicitly give them the message that they’re incompetent. And you are limiting their autonomy, thereby ensuring their basic psychological needs for mastery and autonomy aren’t met. Therefore, change your style into someone who asks questions.

Become inquisitive

You needn’t always be right, else there is no room for another’s competence. By becoming inquisitive, accepting you know only your view on the subject at hand and accepting the value of a different perspective, your questions become real. They aren’t some kind of trick to get your team to perform better but a genuine interest in another human being. And that’s good for the third of the basic psychological needs: connection.

Ask the right questions

It does require a skill: asking the right questions (see also my post, Good questions, bad questions). The best questions are open-ended, those which invite others to tell you more. The patronizing, judgmental, and why questions are best avoided. Often, closed-ended questions elicit compliance rather than openness. And closed-ended questions are far easier to be interpreted by the other as judgmental. Most importantly, your questions must require an inviting tone, one which says it’s okay to be yourself and a socially acceptable answer isn’t required.

Encourage difference of opinion

You needn’t agree or act on everyone’s opinion. Yet, when listening to what your coworker is telling you, stop thinking about how to react to what is being said. Suppress the urge to correct, defend, or seek objections. Lose the word “But.” Listen. Allow a short silence. Use a short reply to let the other know you are listening, one which at the same time reminds you to ask a question rather than to retort or resort to telling. “Let me think about what you’ve just said,” for example. By being inquisitive and not straightaway rejecting what another says, you encourage difference of opinion. And be last to give your view.

Encourage team workers to do as you do

It’s not enough that only you are a safe conversational partner for your colleagues, you want them to be able to do the same amongst themselves. In team meetings, for example, you see to it that everyone gets their say and you also ensure that team members don’t interrupt, judge, defend, or object. Partly you will need to correct (“Let … finish speaking, I’d like to hear his/her opinion on this,” for example; or, “I wouldn’t be that quick to judge”), yet also be encouraging an inquisitive attitude (“What questions do you have for …”).

Creating safety lays the basis for the other six things you should do for excellent interpersonal communication, leading to an excellent organization where people come to work because that work fulfills their needs, gives them pleasure, and stimulates them do more than only what they have to do. Remember, an excellent organization is appreciative, interesting, and challenging to work for. It attracts excellent coworkers, helps them climb the organizational ladder, and especially helps retain them.

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