As I sit with team after team providing guidance for better functioning, I am always struck by the same three related observations. One, everyone seems to be speaking a foreign language. Two, no one is hearing each other. And three, everyone would rather be getting a root canal than be in a room with this motley crew. It’s a wonder that anything gets accomplished!
Sadly, this is the norm for many teams. From a psychological perspective I break it down this way: we have egos that need to be stroked, we each want to stand out from the crowd, we get confused and defensive in group settings, we don’t know what else to do. We are not bad people who mean to disregard our peers. We just missed that day in school. Oh, right! We never ever learned this stuff in school.
We each need to take personal responsibility for getting out of our own way by quieting our voracious appetites for recognition and turning up the volume on positive intentions towards others. That is the starting point for developing an appreciation for our team mates. Easy for me to say, harder to do. But becoming aware that the “me, me, me” meter is running over time is important. Hit the pause button. There is a lot of amazing stuff you’ll start to notice when you do that. Hidden gems to feature and obstacles that are simpler than we imagine.
The path to understanding starts with teams that speak only one language: the native tongue of your country. Not MBA jargon, not company alphabet soup acronyms, not trend du jour memes, not functional discipline gobbledygook. Just plain english (in my case). Years ago while I was working at a newspaper the editor drilled this into me. As a fine written and verbal communicator it made him crazy when team meetings were over run with gibberish. The opportunities for misunderstandings and meaningless exchanges were exponential. He taught me that down to earth, plain-spoken english would improve our discussions. And he was right.
I’m not saying that a team of functional experts should never use their own shorthand. I’m suggesting that mixed teams need to err on the side of normal language and even experts need to revert to english when it comes to debates and decisions. This is the only way a team can establish a common language. Without that, the chances for understanding each other drop significantly.
By now everyone has sat through training courses on effective listening skills. We’ve all learned how to nod our heads and ask questions for deeper understanding and how to draw out the silent ones. That’s all good stuff. Just not enough. If we appear to be listening, is that the same as actually hearing what is being said? Here’s how you can tell if you’ve been heard. Someone says, “Hmmm. I never thought about it that way. Tell me more about how you got to that place.” Here’s how you can tell if you really heard someone else. When you ask a question the person does not reply, “I just answered that same question five minutes ago.” In order to hear someone two things need to happen: you need to have a quiet mind so you can take in new information and you need to assimilate that data. If you are mentally busy thinking of your response to the person or how you want to score your own points or reminding yourself to pick up milk on your way home, then you haven’t heard a word. You might appear to be listening but you’re not.
Walk into a team meeting with this goal: I’m going to speak much less and try to hear much more. Jot some notes as others are speaking. Pick up on key words and themes. Hear content as pieces of data to be mixed and matched and moved around. See if you can pick up on emotional tone. Is the person excited or frustrated or bored? Fit the affect together with the content to see if that reshapes the picture. In other words, sit back and take it all in rather than feeling a need to jump in repeatedly. Speak up when you can add something valuable to the discussion. Especially helpful is your synthesis of the key points in the conversation. Your team mates will be surprised and pleased that someone heard all that and was able to make some sense out of it. Being heard is what we really want. Listening can be too superficial.
I believe these first two issues feed into the third problem: people aren’t enjoying being together. It feels like a chore, one more thing to check off the daily to-do list. Most teams are made up of a cast of characters who are different than we are. That’s a good thing for the business but not necessarily easy to figure out how to get along and be productive. This one is so analytical and that one can’t make a decision and this one loves the sound of his voice and that one never follows through. Why can’t everyone be just like me: charming, cooperative, smart, quick, focused, practically perfect in every way (thank you Mary Poppins)? Our task is to find ways to appreciate those differences and understand the necessity of having them.
I don’t expect us to adore every person we work with but I absolutely believe we can come to respect our peers. If we all spoke one common language and we all made the effort to hear each other (and quiet our inner judges and ringmasters) we would be well on our way to understanding the value of each team member. When I stop worrying about trying to be the smartest one in the room and I sit back and listen, I can actually hear who else is smart. I don’t have to be the only one. I can even hear some valuable insights from those that I don’t have the highest regard for. That can help me realize that I was being too harsh and hasty. When I honestly admit to myself that the reason I go crazy about the overly analytic team member is because I don’t do well with details, I can start to respect her and realize the team really needs that. When I can laugh at myself because a whole room full of Nicki’s would be an absolute nightmare, then I can appreciate the cast of characters that make up our team.
Speaking plain english and hearing each other go a long way towards understanding and enjoying our team mates. These are small but overlooked steps to building better teams.