We’ve been studying communication for 40 years, and never has the need felt greater than now: A global virus, broken economy, and the demand for racial justice have become our background. Our relationship issues are magnified as we work from home or head back to work, without knowing what returning to normal will look like.
So, what can we control? Our own communication. We can use this time, when our communication skills are more critical than ever, to change conflict into conscious conversations that solve problems, strengthen relationships, and deepen trust.
This new virtual reality has produced a unique set of challenges for teams. When meetings go online, issues abound:
- How do I get into a virtual conversation?
- How do I know when it’s my turn?
- Is my input worthy?
- Will I be sanctioned for talking over a teammate, or, worse, someone I report to?
These questions unfold daily in our current online environment. But we have been researching them for 40 years.
In our early graduate school days, we taught in the first U.S. program for clinically shy communicators. Our adviser and mentor Gerald M. Phillips, PhD, created this program for reticent communicators who were anxious about speaking up. Now, four decades later, what we learned teaching in that program has informed our work in an age where even extraverts have to figure out the new virtual meeting landscape.
Here are five research-based actions to strengthen individual communication with coworkers, clients, or family members.
1. Ask open-ended questions and then share your understanding
What if someone accuses you of “not delivering for the team” or “not helping enough around the house?” Our instinct is to argue and defend. Instead, ask questions like, “What do you need most from me right now?” or “Can you tell me more?” Then carefully listen to the answer and clarify your understanding.
2. Pinpoint details
Vague complaints inflame, but specific examples instruct. Instead of saying “You’ve been distracted and unresponsive,” you might try, “Yesterday when you joined the Zoom meeting, you said you hadn’t completed the all-employee email, so I agreed to do it.” Then get the other person to share their view by asking: “What was going on for you?”
3. Share your own contribution to the problem
Nothing signals integrity like acknowledging that you are part of the problem (“In my zeal to get a small business loan, I’ve not been taking a meaningful role around the house, even though my schedule is more flexible than yours.”) It’s hard to stay angry with someone who’s owning their accountability. The power of agreeing that you are part of the problem shifts the conversation from combat to cooperation.
4. Consciously share your feelings
This is a very emotional time, and sharing vulnerable feelings connects you with others. Self-disclosure (“I’m sometimes overwhelmed with fear for my health”) is the greatest predictor of successful relationships—and that’s what sharing vulnerable feelings does.
5. A do-over can be healing
Pave the way for a relationship reboot by saying, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation, and I believe I can do better. Can we try again?” When you decide on a do-over, remember to use the above four micro-communication behaviors.
Further to individual communication, these eight research-based strategies can boost the inner fabric of a team and ensure that everyone in a meeting speaks, everyone feels heard and understood, and everyone is committed to the solutions that come forward.
1. Find a meaningful question central to your team’s work
Turn on your team’s creative instincts and bring meaning to their work with questions like: “How can we create more inclusive community engagement?” or “What virtual solutions can we offer our clients?” A productive, engaged team does more than complete basic tasks.
2. Honor the power of silence before sharing ideas
Reticence to participate is magnified when people experience online videoconferencing. Two minutes of silence before you ask team members to speak allows them to collect their thoughts and brings quieter people into the discussion.
3. Create a queue of names to guide an orderly discussion
Inviting each person, in turn, wipes out awkward silences and ensures that everyone participates. If people don’t speak during the meeting, that’s when there are “meetings after the meeting” where agreements can become unraveled. (But do let people know that it’s okay to say, “Pass, for now,” and contribute later.)
4. Create a virtual group memory
Assign a recorder to use Zoom White Board or screen share Microsoft Word to list all ideas as they are contributed. This creates a “group memory” that everyone can view together.
5. Use P-R-E-S to energize discussions
Aim for 45 seconds to make a Point; give a Reason; share an Example; offer a Summary. “I believe our customer service reps should be able to send customers video links showing how to perform simple repairs at home (Point). This will cut down on service calls and create grateful customers (Reason). Recently, the pilot light went out on my gas fireplace and a YouTube video showed me what to do (Example). So, video links can cut back our service calls while improving our customer service (Summary).” Remember: The power of a personal example is immense.
6. Invite quieter people into the conversation
When you use our suggestions, there will be fewer silent members, but it’s important to let everyone know their voice matters.
7. Harvest group agreements
Ask: “What do we agree to already?” rather than squandering time focusing on smaller areas of disagreement. Remember: What you look for is what you find.
8. End with a final process check
Each participant gets 20 seconds to say, “This is what I’m feeling and thinking from our meeting.”
If all team members are involved in important, meaningful, creative decisions where all voices are heard, the results are increased trust, respect, engagement, and productivity. And once in-person meetings resume, these best practices will continue to serve your organization well.
Whether you are communicating with coworkers, clients, or family members, remember that everyone is under pressure now. More so than ever, what someone intends to communicate may be different than the impact of their words. Go easy on them and focus on how your communication can set the stage for cooperation and cohesion.
Susan and Peter Glaser are married business partners who have spent their professional, academic, and consulting lives researching and teaching best practices for a wide range of communication challenges that organizations and individuals face.