How To Improve Team Communication with Active Listening

By Phillip Sandahl

Communication on Teams

In today’s business world the importance of effective team communication is indisputable.

What’s also beyond dispute is that the increasing rate of daily business activity presents a challenge to communication on teams.

But speed alone is hardly the only aspect of communication that is putting pressure on teams.

Add to the equation new forms of communication, greater distance, and virtual dependency.

There was a time when the speakerphone in the middle of the conference room table was the leading edge of technology.

Now a team meeting of six could be on six different devices in six different time zones.

The pressure is on to upgrade and adapt, to keep pace with the ever-changing forms of communication on teams.

And the expectation remains to get the job done, despite these increasing pressures.

A New Awareness for Communication

Improve Team Communication

What may be even more important than the need for speed, is the shift from team communication as a functional medium to an essential relationship medium in a world that’s dependent on collaboration.

Under relentless pressure, teams operate from expediency. They are driven to focus on the quickest way to sort an issue and propose a solution.

In haste, too often the infrastructure of relationship in communication is overlooked or disregarded.

The essential wiring for better understanding, brainstorming, learning, and shared experience remains inactive.

Areas for improvement in team communication are cast aside in favor of the rush to move on to the next urgent need.

To excel in this changing world requires new communication skills: chief among them, much deeper attention to listening.

Listening is the essential other half of communication and all too often it suffers at the expense of sending more, and faster.

This rush to action is too often based on assumptions because—who has time to ask a question or listen to the response.

In the TCI team effectiveness model, communication resides as one of the seven Positivity factors.

This is because of its key role in the team’s relationship infrastructure.

Just as important as the content of the communication, is how that message is delivered.

The interaction that takes place, the nature of the response and the underlying impact on team relationship.

Each of these factors is tightly woven into that thrust to communicate.

Just think for a moment how even the simplest act of communication can build trust, influence a decision-making process, increase alignment and reinforce respect.

One could easily make the case that team collaboration would be impossible without good communication. That’s the challenge.

How We Define Communication

Improve Team Communication

In our TCI team effectiveness model, this is how we understand this core team performance factor:

Communication: Clear and efficient communication is valued. Team members make listening well a priority. Effective communication processes satisfy the need for clarity, speed, and content. Teams practice direct communication over approaches such as politicizing, gossiping, or stonewalling.

4 Elements of Efficient Communication

A key word in that definition is “efficient”: a necessary attribute at the speed of business. Note that “efficient” does not mean faster or more condensed.

In our understanding of efficient communication, there are four interconnected elements.

Timely Communication

There is a line somewhere between impulsively sent and completely formed that defines just-in-time.

The line is imprecise. Teams must clearly operate in a world that is still volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous with an aim for being timely as the target.

Relevant Communication

How many times have you wasted precious time wondering “Why am I reading this?” or WAIRT in its acronym form.

Keeping everyone on the team well-informed is important but there is the potential for laziness and inefficiency when even well-intentioned team communication does not pass the relevance test.

The answer to WAIRT should be obvious which means the “ask” or action to be taken is easily understood.

Sufficient Communication

Teams we work with almost always say they want better communication. Too often “better” gets confused with “more” and teams are already flooded with communication coming from every direction on the team. Choosing the appropriate form is often the first step in addressing this attribute. If a short text will do—great. If sufficient requires more depth then so be it.

Responsible Communication

As team communication shifts from an almost exclusively functional role to an essential element in collaboration, the need to consider and anticipate the impact of communication also becomes more important. Words matter; of course, they do. So does tone and emphasis and timing—even body language in many cases. Responsible team communication includes being aware of the working environment and packaging of communication to those who will receive it.

The Results of Improved Team Communication

Within the above context, how communication is handled on a team—the actual behavior, protocol, and habits—reflect, and at the same time, create and reinforce team culture.

“How we do things” including “How we treat one another” is on display in the action team members take: how team members talk to each other, correspond, interact and listen.

Clearly understood and practiced agreements around team communication, empowered and maintained over time, provide the basis for more effective and efficient team communication.

And improved team communication inevitably leads to a culture of increased productivity and employee engagement.

New Listening Skills for Teams

Improve Team Communication with Active Listening

The shift from primarily functional and hierarchical team communication to a more relational and horizontal form of communication means more emphasis on the ability of team members to listen effectively.

Truly effective team communication, especially when we put it in a relationship and team culture context, is going to mean slowing down.

As one might expect, slowing down is something that the vast majority of teams, by nature, resist.

Most teams rely on quick judgments and assumptions instead, with the inevitable detours and misunderstandings that result.

“But I thought…” is a common refrain we hear when we’re exploring communication on a team.

If the common goal is “efficient” communication, slowing down will be the fastest way to get there.

Practice Active Listening

One of the simplest skills for teams to practice is basic active listening.

It’s nothing more than repeating back what one has heard, in order to confirm a mutual understanding.

It starts with the listener stating “What I heard you say…” in response to what’s said.

For the sender, it starts, “To confirm that we have the same understanding, what did you hear me say?”

This simple device opens the conversation to uncover assumptions and unspoken expectations.

Clarification at this level keeps the process on the rails and is a great start in your efforts to improve team communication.

Listen With Curiosity

In a collaborative team culture, there is also the need for listening with greater curiosity.

Asking open-ended questions to provoke new thinking and promote mutual learning.

Taking the time to be curious shows a commitment to listening well and creates a deeper pool of creative ideas.

This is far more effective way to improve team communication than the usual rush to react with a solution.

Look Out for What Isn’t Said

Effective listening also includes listening beyond the words, the content, and the positions team members are taking.

I’m sure you’ve seen team meetings where the event was a display of team members declaring and defending their personal positions on the issue at hand.

Quite often trying to persuade others to see things their way—and the consequence was that listening was replaced with reloading while team members waited impatiently to fire off another round.

Listening in a collaborative, relational context includes listening with width and depth.

Listening to the tone of what is being said and noticing the impact; listening for the ebb and flow of the energy, along with the words.

Great skill in listening on teams includes the ability of team members to listen below the surface.

To notice the tides and currents that impact the content sailing on the surface.

Listening more deeply includes being more aware of the team’s unspoken ground rules.

Even if they’re undeclared, they’re there: rules for who talks, the topics that are preferred and those that are taboo.

It also included being aware of where rank sits around the table—formal and informal—what the established patterns of communication are, and more.

This is a level of listening that we expect from experienced team coaches.

And it is a level of deeper listening that should be transmitted to teams to practice.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

One simple way to improve team communication is to start a conversation around team communication with a few open-ended questions:

“What are the current ground rules for communication on this team?”

“What’s working?”

“What’s not working?”

“What are the unspoken assumptions or beliefs on this team about communication?”

These kinds of questions present the team with an open door to walk through and can be a tremendous communication tool.

Change Seats

There is an important distinction to be made between “positions” and “issues”.

Frequently on teams, the argument has settled on alternative or even conflicting positions and the underlying issue is lost and listening is replaced with shouting or some equivalent.

One variation on active listening in a case like this is to have the parties choose, for the sake of clarity, to change sides or even to change seats at the table and for a few minutes speak as an advocate for that position.

Then check for listening and a debrief of possible new learning from that exchange.


Whether you’re new to coaching teams or are a seasoned veteran, this key competency plays a crucial role in your efforts to improve team communication.

Efficient and effective team communication is a loop, not a line. Just sending a message is not communicating. It’s uttering. Listening closes the loop of communication.

On today’s teams, under pressure to move faster and perform better, excellence in this competence creates the foundation that makes outstanding performance possible.

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