Communicating with people has evolved over the years. Not too long ago, people used to have phone conversations, write each other letters, or talk in person. The phone is still a thing, although most prefer to text, emailing has replaced most letter-writing outside of special occasions, and most people would rather perform manual labor than have a face to face discussion with someone. Making eye contact has become incredibly aversive for a lot of people.
During a conversation with a teacher recently, he said, “If I go out into the courtyard during lunchtime, there are pockets of teenagers huddled around each other in circles, and no one is making eye contact, or exchanging one word, they are just looking down”. I agreed this is a disturbing trend, but pointed out sadly adults are no different. Go into any waiting room or try and walk through the grocery store. The amount of eye contact people make is diminishing to almost zero.
All of these behavior patterns travel with people to work, which often requires people to break out of their comfort zones and collaborate with colleagues, and exchange information through multiple technological mediums, and old-fashioned teamwork. For many, public speaking or conversations with new people has always been challenging, but this has been made increasingly more difficult in the technological era we live in, which encourages remaining introverted in technological bubbles. These bubbles divide attention between the moment we are in and manufactured separation anxiety from all the digital prompts fighting for our acknowledgment.
This is making developing projects, and team collaboration an onerous mission. Our distractions are located everywhere in our environment, and there is no clearly defined social etiquette for how to manage phone conversations, emails, and other forms of correspondence. When partnering with a team on a project, everyone should be on the same page in regard to how to communicate with each other, and how to manage to communicate with outside sources during team meetings and functions. It is not just being in the room with your team, it is about when you are in the room, providing as much of your attention and effort into the process, without wondering how many notifications you are missing out on.
Team leaders can accommodate for decreasing attention spans while increasing group participation by using organizational structure and input from their team to form communication systems on how to engage one another during group activities, and how to manage devices during meetings. Team building is a crucial component to any field, and since technology is not slowing down, learning how to coexist is imperative.
Our democracy awards each individual the right to think and speak for themself on how they receive and process information effectively. This does not have to be different at work. Collect input from all group members on what communication strategies are effective. Open the door to an honest discussion and politely ask,
“Who has a hard time not checking your phone during meetings”?” Use some transparency from your own life if needed to break the ice on the discussion. Inject some humor, but, assure that there is no punishment, be clear you are attempting to accommodate everyone in the room. Use this as an initial team-building exercise of the disclosure.
Motivational coach Tony Robbins said, “To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others”. It is an asset to know how your colleagues think when building rapport and developing a team-wide communication system. Including your team on the policy and the construction of the system will create buy-in for you as a leader, and also demonstrates your value among colleagues. Use the input you gather to form guidelines on how to engage one another during meetings and rules for managing devices out of courtesy for your colleagues. By creating a communications system that works for everyone, you increase the likelihood your team will comply with the policy you set in place, and decrease the childlike behavior of your colleagues sneaking off to the bathroom to check their devices every 20 minutes.
During an initial project meeting, when assembling the group together, request information on how your teammates’ process and filter their information. That may sound robotic, but in a data-driven, metrics-based society, it mimics a great deal of the tasks you will be performing together. This is not match.com, you are not looking for a life partner, you are quantifying the skills of your work team. Journalist Sydney Harris said, “The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through”.
You need to understand how information is generated through each colleague to facilitate group participation evenly. Social anxieties and communication barriers get in the way of people’s comfort when speaking in front of others, and it is crucial to accommodating each person’s style as you are able. However, it is also imperative to find the strengths and weaknesses of who can perform the tasks needed efficiently and effectively.
If one person has the skills to compute information quicker than the rest of the team, it is important to identify that skill and teach them how to evoke responses from other colleagues rather than dominating the group. Groom your team leaders as they demonstrate leadership through your team. As NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson said, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each individual member is the team”. Michael Jordan is arguably the best player of all time, but Phil Jackson taught him the importance of making the team better as well.
Call and response is a great strategy to evaluate who in the group has the material absorbed, while simultaneously indirectly commanding group participation. Instruct the group to reply after a short countdown. This will give a few seconds to compartmentalize any anxiety about speaking out loud. By responding as a group, it assuages the trepidation collectively to talk to a group, and it allows the leader to evaluate everyone’s response at once. This may feel like an elementary technique, but it is a useful shortcut to perpetuate group engagement while keeping everyone awake and responsive.
To ensure efficiency and keep the group responsive and connected to the goal of advancing the project forward, establishing milestones in advance is a great way to keep the meeting moving. Use visual aids such as PowerPoint presentations, or just write down an outline in a place where everyone can see it. Write down headings and coordinating times based on the block of time you have to cover specific topics. Go over these expectations before you start your meeting, and clarify your milestones to give any overly anxious public speakers time to collect themselves and to formulate their responses. You ‘don’t want to rush the group along, but by organizing your topics around frames of time, you create an urgency to expedite discussions when they are lagging.
If the meeting hits a lull, use the call and response technique to speed the information process up, and to expedite the agenda back on track. Tell everyone upfront if the information gets covered early, and we have time left, you are welcome to use that free time to handle other business. Provide a natural escape from the meeting and free time to reward participants for their hard work. On the flip side, if our colleagues are having a dragging day, then emphasize the group can stay longer to finish if needed.
This seems so elementary. But I have been in so many meetings where the speaker sees more value in pushing through the allotted time, and their message is lost somewhere in the back of the room near the coffee machine. Those are the meetings where half the room is checking out their phones, and the other half look like they are being subjected to a marathon of the ‘speaker’s old family Christmas movies.
Scheduling breaks does more than just give people time to stretch their legs, hit the bathroom, refuel on coffee and spike their dopamine from checking their cell phones. It resets the group, but it keeps the team concept in unison. Everything in the meeting that can be tied around the ‘all for one, one for all’ ideology should be maintained. It schedules a permissible time to check those other communication sources such as returning phone calls, emails, and text messages that may lower anxiety in your team, which frees up their attention span for the activity the groups are focused on.
Make sure and list these breaks in on your production agenda so those in the room who are perseverating on their devices can plan on when they will have access. Make sure and provide the break as scheduled, and no matter if you are behind or not, respect the time you have allotted. During the break, try and avoid any work-related discussion with your teammates if possible. Respect the time for everyone to reset in their own way. When the break is over, warm the audience back up with some refresher questions but avoid any strenuous inquisitions for at least 5 minutes so everyone can get their attention back to the group.
As your team responds during any activity, always incorporate as much verbal praise into the room as possible. It ‘doesn’t just demonstrate support for the individual you are responding to, but it also sends the message to the room, you are a supportive coach. You want to lead by example, and it encourages your teammates to route on each other. That is the cammeradorie a leader seeks to build for their team, and it should be encouraged as often as possible. Lack of verbal praise leads to bitterness and unappreciation from your workforce.
Create a culture of support. Even the smallest tasks deserve a compliment for participation or for effort. There are plenty of cases where people display neither, so when any attempt is in front of you, acknowledge it. For those who have anxiety about communication or are distracted due to not having access to their devices, compliments and positive reinforcement are a way to engage them back into the group. Tell everyone what a great job they are doing, not checking their phones, reward their effort with acknowledgment in addition to a break. It is hard work concentrating on a task, and no matter if you are being paid to do it or not, someone validating your effort can go a long way.
Even with all the structure and support built-in, things come up. People have personal lives, and emergencies come up regularly. Be clear to the group that you are sympathetic, and you understand. Encourage anyone who has a particular need or situation to seek you out privately. This encourages initiative but also motivates communication of complex issues from your colleagues. Have an open-door policy and remove any judgment from your thinking, no matter if your colleague’s issue conflicts with your personal beliefs or ideology.
You want to demonstrate yourself as a supportive nature. This will encourage your colleagues to communicate with you, but it will help you evolve as a communicator also. Delegating issues and showing stoicism when faced with issues that conflict with your personal ideologies creates a restraint that is valuable when navigating through a diverse workforce with global influence.
Flexibility always swings both ways. Your team will be more likely to adapt to you if you adapt to them. Structure ‘doesn’t always have to be rigid, but it can incorporate rules which establish framework but ‘don’t slam the door shut on having empathy or understanding. A team requires both, and if you want to maximize your team’s output they need to believe they are being respected not just managed. It is not about making everyone happy, but respect and understanding should be exercised at all times for a healthy work culture. Encourage feedback from your colleagues about what communication styles are effective and which are not. If the goal is about effective communication, demonstrate humility and your team will increase their trust and support. Like, composer, John Powell said “Communication works for those who work at it”.
Austin Hill M.A MFA
March 12, 2020