George Lucas Educational Foundation
Instructional Coaching

Effective Team Communication: A First Step to Getting Along

Teacher teams can take a big step toward effective communication by naming what they want to hear and see in group conversations and what they don’t want to hear and see.

December 3, 2015
Photo credit: Phil Roeder via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Most educators intellectually know the importance of working in teams, departments, or professional learning communities. Most of us want healthy collaboration with colleagues and yearn for the support, understanding, and guidance from others who walk in our shoes.

Yet many team meetings are riddled with ineffective communication dynamics. Perhaps one team member dominates the conversation, or someone else disengages and never participates, or someone derails discussions.

Although there aren't quick-fix solutions to these dynamics, there are many things that we can do -- as team leaders or members of teams -- to turn our team towards healthy communication. In this blog post, I'll offer a few suggestions from my forthcoming book, The Art of Coaching Teams, to support you in this work.

Reflect on Current Dynamics

If you are a team leader, you may be able to make decisions that can shift your team's dynamics. If you're a team member, then the more you know about healthy communication, the better you can advocate for a shift. The first step is to reflect on your team's communication patterns. Here are six questions to guide that reflection:

  1. What do I notice about the conversations we have now in our team? What dynamics do I see present?
  2. How do I feel about the conversations we have now?
  3. What do I want our team's conversations to look and sound like?
  4. What purposes do our conversations need to have?
  5. How do I want to feel during conversations?
  6. What defines a good conversation for me?

Identify the Outcome

Teams can take a big step toward effective communication by naming what they want to hear and see in group conversations and what they don't want to hear and see. When one team I worked with was in a particularly stormy phase, members created a list of what they wanted to see and hear in group conversations. These included the following:

  • Active listening through paraphrasing and by asking follow-up, clarifying, and probing questions
  • Active listening through nonverbal communication (making eye contact with each other, nodding)
  • Questions and wonderings grounded in genuine inquiry
  • Summarizing of each others' ideas
  • Invitations to quieter members
  • Making sure that everyone's voice is heard
  • Probing questions that go below surface comments
  • Productive conflict around ideas
  • Offering of ideas, suggestions, solutions, and next steps
  • Empathy for each other and others outside of the team (including students, parents, and administrators)

They also listed what they didn't want to see and hear, which included:

  • Going off topic and into long digressions
  • Dominating the conversation by taking up too much airtime or trying to dictate the conversation
  • Being sarcastic
  • Disengaging and not participating
  • Dismissing the ideas of others with "yeah, buts"
  • Gossiping about others
  • Blaming others
  • Being distracted by other things (technology) or people

Off to a Good Start

At the opening of each meeting they reviewed their responses, and each member selected a few of the positive attributes that she would focus on demonstrating. Sometimes the team asked a process observer to track what she noticed in terms of their communication and which of these elements they demonstrated.

After several months of close focus on their communication by using this tool, this team's discussions improved dramatically.

Awareness about how your team is currently communicating and how you'd like it to communicate is a critical first step in changing dynamics. Without this reflection and without identifying the direction you're trying to go in, you won't be able to chart a strategic path.

In upcoming blog posts, I'll be sharing more tips on shifting communication dynamics in teams.

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