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How to keep healthy communication habits in remote teams

Being mindful of the needs of your team and yourself can help improve understanding and strengthen communication over time

Nov 1, 2018 · 4 min read

by Taurie Davis

Communication in the workplace can be a challenge. Misunderstandings and tension are common, especially with asynchronous communication, where you have fewer cues available in understanding voice and tone. Direct communication can be mistaken as harsh or rude. When you add in missed context, communication breakdowns and emotions can begin to overwhelm a conversation. Being mindful of the needs of your team and yourself can help improve understanding and strengthen communication over time.

There are cultural and circumstantial differences that shape the way we communicate with one another. People respond to situations in different ways and understanding those differences can be key to identifying successful communication strategies.

It is important to recognize common needs in both yourself and your teammates in order to effectively communicate. Paloma Medina identified six core human needs that people experience in the workplace:

Belonging: The need to belong to a group or clan. A sense of community and connection.

Improvement: The feeling that you are making progress towards a goal or milestone.

Choice: The power and flexibility to make decisions autonomously.

Equality: Equal access to resources and information. Decisions are fair and everyone is treated and supported in the same way.

Predictability: The ability to anticipate future challenges. Having a consistent direction that doesn’t change too frequently. A feeling of certainty regarding resources such as time or money.

Significance: A sense of importance and status among your peers; receiving recognition for your work.

When one of these core needs remains unmet, it can elicit a fight or flight response. This resistance can break down communication and cause tension within teams.

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Depending on the situation, one or more of the following tools can help improve a deteriorating conversation.

When tension begins to creep in, map the response to which core need is not being met. When you notice yourself becoming frustrated, take a step back and ask yourself where the frustration is coming from. This will allow you to address the root of the problem and not the symptom that is arising in this particular situation. When you notice a teammate is struggling, start by understanding which of their needs they may be feeling is jeopardized. Learning to understand which core needs are more important to certain individuals will help them feel valued and understood.

A common mishap is when it is assumed that everyone has all the context necessary in order to make an informed decision. This is often not the case. If you feel as if no one is understanding your point of view, try providing more context regarding the particular topic. Ask for more context when something doesn’t quite feel right or make sense to you. More often than not, there is context missing. Typically, everyone is working towards a similar goal. Keep frustrations in check when someone isn’t on the same page as you. They may not have the full picture or same understanding that you do.

Practice mindful communication by asking open questions to better understand other perspectives. Open questions require more of a response than “yes” or “no” and allow you to gain more context. Don’t blame or feel threatened. Try to approach the conversation from a position of help.

If you are able to recognize feelings of resistance in regards to a particular conversation either in yourself or someone else, take the time to reflect on the current situation. You may be in a position to help move the conversation forward by assuming best intentions, listening to those around you, and being prepared to be surprised by what you don’t know.

Retrospectives help by normalizing discussions surrounding difficult topics. It’s not always easy to reflect on yourself and how you could have approached a situation better. Being open to talking about what went well and what could be improved will help you better understand your own communication patterns, as well as those around you.

Tension among teams occurs when core needs feel threatened. It can cause feelings of doubt or avoidance, sometimes even evoking an argumentative response. It is important to recognize that these responses are not personal, and most often mean that someone’s needs are not being met.

If you find yourself becoming upset over a potential communication breakdown, work to reflect on the dynamics of the conversation and assume best intentions. Be open to listening and willing to have your mind changed. Remember: you may not have the full story.

This post was inspired by Lara Hogan’s talk on Navigating Team Friction at AEA Seattle.

Taurie Davis is the Staff UX Designer, Configure at GitLab. Taurie is passionate about identifying problems, creating reliable solutions, and crafting intuitive experiences. She enjoys implementing her own designs while understanding each step in the development process, ensuring that the user experience stays the top priority. When she is not working, Taurie spends most of her time training as an aerialist, enjoying the beautiful Pacific Northwest, or cuddling up at home with a movie and her cat.

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