I like to ask my clients what they believe are the key ingredients of great teamwork. Many invariably tell me that “open communication” is one of the important factors in determining whether or not a team is able to work together cohesively.

When I probe further into what they do to encourage open communication within their teams, many say that they encourage team members to bring up issues and concerns, discuss them and then brainstorm solutions as a team.

Interestingly, many also readily admit that their team meetings and discussions are far from being truly “open”.

So what does open communication really mean? What should leaders do to encourage truly “open” communication within their teams and organisations?

Here are four practical tips to encourage truly open communication and to bring team communication to a whole new level:

Encourage dialogue

To encourage dialogue within a team, leaders need to remove the mental, emotional and psychological impediments to communicating openly. Most of the time, people do not speak their minds because they fear negative repercussions, or they defer to authority and power. 

One effective way is for the leader to remove all badges of power and authority and to treat everyone as equals during the meeting or discussions.

The leader needs to assure the team members that there will be no negative consequences or repercussions for contributing ideas, thoughts, suggestions and even criticism.

Obviously, some basic ground rules to govern the meeting or discussion have to be established. For instance, all criticism must be constructive, and be communicated with sensitivity and respect.

Equal air-time

During team meetings, the leader needs to ensure that every member gets equal airtime to voice his or her concerns, suggestions, ideas and criticism. Do not let one person dominate the discussion.

It is imperative for the leader to ensure everyone around the table gets an equal chance to speak, because once the meeting or the discussion gets “hijacked”, it will discourage other members from speaking up and will negatively impact any chance of a fruitful dialogue.

Seek clarification

The next time when you are in a meeting or a discussion, quietly observe yourself and count how many times you jump to a conclusion or make an assumption even before someone has finished talking.

Jumping to a conclusion or making an assumption can create misunderstandings. We may incorrectly judge another person because of our own mindset, perceptions and self-limiting beliefs.

If you are unsure of what the other person is saying or if you catch yourself jumping to conclusions the next time you are in a meeting or a discussion, ask the other person to explain things again or ask questions to clarify your understanding of what is being said.

In most cases, misunderstandings are cleared up instantly when you ask questions.

Personal preferences

Every one of us processes information differently. Some of us prefer to receive information in a structured, orderly and timely manner; while others are comfortable with receiving information in a less structured or orderly manner.

Similarly, some of us prefer to have all the details and information upfront before making a decision; others are comfortable moving forward with less than complete information.

Being aware of the communication preferences of individual team members can go a long way in enabling the team leader to more effectively engage each team member and minimise miscommunication and misunderstanding.

For a team to be able to truly communicate openly, the leader must encourage dialogue by creating and ensuring a safe environment, where team members feel respected, comfortable and confident contributing ideas and suggestions, and giving criticism.

Once team members feel safe, respected and confident, they will begin to let their guard down, and genuine and authentic conversations will then naturally follow. It is this that will bring team communication to a whole new level.

Article by Steven Lock, a high performance strategist of FutureTHINK! Training & Consultancy LLP. He is a certified DISC and MBTI practitioner and the author of Hiring for Performance: The CAAP® Model to Hiring and Building High-Performance Teams. For more information, visit www.futurethink.com.sg.