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Opening Communication: Team Foundations That Last

To prime the article you’re about to read, think of a relationship that’s (just a little) challenging. It could be with a friend, a parent, a team, or group you’ve been part of.


Give yourself a moment to bring someone to mind.


Now consider, in that relationship, what gets in the way of you feeling open or like you can be real or authentic?


When it comes to teams there are a lot of reasons people struggle to be honest and communicate openly. Some common ones being:


  • Safety: “If I share what’s real will so and so retaliate? Will I lose my job?”

  • Trust: “Will what I say be held in confidence? Will I be misunderstood or judged?”

  • Power: “Will what I say be used against me? Will so and so abuse their position to serve their own wants, desires or biases?

  • Poor prior experience(s): Every time I say what’s true for me, so and so invalidates my experience. Is their defensiveness or shame worth the risk of opening up?

  • Affinity or belonging: “What if no one else can relate? Am I going to be the odd one out?


The list goes on and on. and on. and on... and every team has its own menu of challenges when it comes to opening communication. While change takes time, there’s one thing you can and must do now to grow a healthier and more effective team. That is, you have to make a consistent and concerted effort to develop unconditional positive regard between all members of your team.


Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR)


Unconditional positive regard (UPR), as defined by humanistic psychologists, is expressing empathy, support, and acceptance to someone, regardless of what they say or do. In Buddhism, a parallel to UPR might be named Metta, or loving-kindness.


According to Barbara O-brien, a Zen Buddhist practitioner:


“One of the biggest misunderstandings people have about Buddhists is that Buddhists are always supposed to be nice. But, usually, niceness is only a social convention. Being "nice" often is about self-preservation and maintaining a sense of belonging in a group. We are "nice" because we want people to like us, or at least not get angry with us.


There's nothing wrong with being nice, most of the time, but it's not the same thing as loving-kindness.


Remember, Metta is concerned with the genuine happiness of others. Sometimes when people are behaving badly, the last thing they need for their own happiness is someone politely enabling their destructive behavior. Sometimes people need to be told things they don't want to hear; sometimes they need to be shown that what they are doing is not okay.”


Unconditional positive regard doesn’t mean accepting harmful behaviors. Being real and honest is sometimes kinder than upholding standards or “niceness” and the more we’ve developed a shared sense of UPR on our teams, the more likely we’ll be able to learn from each other, hear constructive feedback and do more impactful work now and into the future.


Imagine. Someone runs a red light at an intersection. On a bad day you might think, “The injustice! The disregard! Who would risk lives just to get somewhere a few minutes sooner!?”


But wait. What if "the culprit" is your mom (or someone else you're close with). Perhaps they just heard sad news about a friend and were trying to hold it together. In their state they didn’t see the light change. Do you feel differently about this “culprit” than you do the other? Do you have more understanding? Why?


When we develop a fuller picture of each person's unique circumstance on our teams, we’re better positioned to support one another’s well-being and learning. When we believe people see a fuller picture of us, we're more likely to open up or admit mistakes.


Insight in action: Check-ins—Go slower to go further


UPR develops over time and each positive experience of “opening up” and feeling "heard" generally increases everyone's capacity to trust to take the next leap (of vulnerability).


This is foundational work. The more trust we have as a team, the more room we have to work through challenges, honor diverse perspectives, and solve increasingly complex problems.


Your homework:

  • Each week set aside at least 5 to 15 minutes for your team to get to know one another as humans beyond work roles and responsibilities

  • Set clear guidelines or expectations for sharing. For example:

    • Everything shared here is confidential

    • No one has to share and this isn't a vulnerability contest

    • Everyone has 1.5 minutes to share

    • When you finish sharing choose the person who will share next

  • Model vulnerability: Start by sharing first

  • Prepare a good question prior to meeting and make it visual (on a slide)

Following are a list of questions that can help your team develop UPR. You might rotate who comes up with the question each week.

  • Who showed up for you when you needed it most? What do you appreciate about them? What from their example do you want to bring to this team?

  • What’s one of your favorite childhood pastimes?

  • Outside of work, what have you been appreciating this week?

  • Who’s one of your heroes and why?

As trust deepens, you might pose questions like:

  • What’s something someone said or did that hurt your feelings? Maybe they didn’t even know the impact they had. Why did it hurt. How did it impact you? What would you have liked instead, or how could they have made it better?

  • What’s something that breaks your heart?

  • What’s a dream you have but are afraid to go for?

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