How to Teach Communication to Your Team

Leaders must teach communication in their organizations. Yes, I just suggested that you must teach grown adults how to communicate. Just like a coach teaches his players how to do so, from middle school to the pros.

A Lesson in Communication from Mike Krzyzewski

Leaders must teach communication and then drill it in. Here are 5 steps to do so. (Click to Tweet)

Why teach communication?

Good communication does not come naturally, even in the closest groups of people who have been together for years. So, communication must be taught and what is taught must be practiced.

Joe comes to your team from a small company where team meetings were a knock-down-drag-out affair. Opinions flowed freely, emotions were high, and voices were raised. That was their culture.

Sue just came from a medium-sized company where team meetings were more orderly and mundane. But afterwards, there was usually a flurry of heated emails. Often the emails got nasty and personal.

Marie comes to your team from a non-profit where team members shared openly each day and leadership was available at all times. Team members spent time together outside of work and knew each other’s families well.

Craig’s former company was a Fortune 100 company full of silos and bureaucracy. Leadership rarely engaged with their teams and team members rarely talked outside of work.

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And so, one day, these four people find themselves working together. And you don’t need to teach them how to communicate?

No. You must teach them and then drill it in.

A lesson from sports

The winningest college basketball coach of all-time, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, once talked about the need to teach and practice communication.

“In the heat of a game,” he said, “a basketball game speaks a different language. To acclimate our team to speaking this language, we do merely drill defensive stances and positioning in our practices, we drill talking.”

Yes, you read that right…they drill talking. He teaches his team how to do something they have been doing for most of their lives.

Why? Because his team speaks a different language on the court. And so does yours, especially in the heat of the moment.

Each team is different

As we learned from Joe, Sue, Marie, and Craig above, each team is different. What do you want your team’s communication to look like?

Here are 5 steps to teaching your team communication and then drilling it in.

  1. Visualize. Create a picture of what you want your team’s communication to look like. Often, you will decide that your team’s communication is great as it is, but even that that must be communicated as team members change. Play this picture over and over in your mind, clarify it, run it by others, ask your team for input. Drill it in your own mind first, then you can do step two.
  2. Cast. Tell your team what communication is supposed to look like on this team. This is the teaching part. 
  3. Practice. This is active learning. Practice scenarios in which communication might break down. Spend time in regular meetings in which you and each team member has the authority to interrupt the meeting to point out when their communication is not matching up with the vision. This leads to step four…
  4. Permission. You must give your team permission to point out breakdowns in communication…at all times.
  5. Repeat. Regularly visualize what communication should look like, cast that vision (teach it), practice how it plays out, and remind your team they are permitted to and responsible for pointing out breakdowns.

How are you teaching communication to your team? How have you seen it taught by other leaders?

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  • Eric Dingler

    As a leader must remember, more is caught than is taught. You can’t substitute the teaching and practice. But, the fastest way to bolster or completely ruin all your efforts is not model the communication you desire. I’d say a leader has to model first, teach second and drill third.

    • Good point Eric. I would actually suggest it goes:

      Teach, model, drill, model, teach, model, drill and so on. More modeling than anything, but teaching must come first, so that the expectation is set.

      I believe that teaching without modeling is pointless but so is modeling with teaching, especially with new team members.

      Tell them what to expect, then show them what they expected.

  • This is the topic where I need to pay the most attention, both at work and at home. Personality styles and tight deadlines play a huge role in how we communicate on our team. People are “nice” to each other and still have questions or disagreements and when they come out, they don’t communicate as “nicely”. I need to learn how to communicate better, and then model. Thanks for the good ideas to put into practice.

  • Wade_Thorson

    Thanks for the thoughts, this is definitley a common area where people and companies struggle. I really struggle in the communication area, and I guess the first step to overcoming it is to recognize the problem. The second step is probably just as hard, identfing and doing things to improve it. Thanks for some ideas.

  • Laura Johnson

    I don’t know if I’ve ever had a leader who taught what communication should look like within the workplace. I think sometimes that’s not seen as important as communicating with the customer. One place I worked at it was pretty cutthroat among coworkers and the boss would just (figuratively) throw her hands in the air. Another place, my boss expected me learn how he wanted things handled without him saying a word. I’m pretty perceptive, but as you so eloquently illustrate, everyone’s different so there will be things I don’t know how to do unless its verbally communicated.
    I don’t think a leader could ever overdue learning how to communicate within an organization. Thanks Matt!!

    • Well said Laura. Sadly, you are right…it is rarely done.

  • This hit me hardest thinking of home. We seem to be spending A LOT of time lately trying to teach my four year old how to communicate. She seems to think that since she’s the little princess she will tell us what she’s going to watch on TV, when she’s going to watch it, how long she’s going to watch it, what she’ll eat, when she’ll be done eating, when she’ll go to bed, what she’ll drink before bed…well, you get the idea.

    This post hit home for me in that context. It’s so important in the home that parents get on the same page about how communication is going to work in the home, and then that we take the time to teach that to all family members.

    I think example is a huge way to do that, but also, like you said, teaching it, explaining
    why we communicate that way, and taking the time to practice, coach and encourage. Great post!

    • Good application Mark. At home it is just as important. Believe it or not, I have discovered that my wife and I come from difference backgrounds and different styles of communication. I know, shocker.

  • Isn’t it amazing we don’t even teach this in college? I have an MBA, and don’t think this was emphasized like it should have been…it is so central. Love the idea of drilling talking!

    • About as amazing as us not teaching personal finance :)

      It’s actually amazing what we DON’T teach in school these days.

      • Good one…didn’t even think about that. I wish they had taught about NOT going into debt in High School…would have saved me a ton of time (and money!)

  • Terrific post. Got me to thinking: before a leader can teach communication to her people, she has to understand that she has the authority and responsibility to do so.

    It’s crazy living with a leader who hurls his authority at any passer-by who looks as if they might taken an interest.

  • Here’s my question. How do you deal with team members who clearly have no interest in improving their communication? What suggestions do you have for me as a leader in dealing with this type of individual?

    • If you have the authority, it’s time for:

      1. A talk about it and offer to coach. If they accept, great. If not, they need to leave. In other words, you need to fire them if you can.

      If they accept, proceed to these steps:

      2.Coach them. As a part of one-on-ones, make it a focus. You need to tell them the point of it and come up with a theme.

      For example:

      Let’s say their problem is interrupting.

      The theme is “being a good listener.” Show them what the entails and what exact behaviors that should be demonstrated (I have some good posts!). Make it about the behaviors. You are not only trying to make them better for their own good but also trying to make them better for the team’s good.

      3. Continue and call them out. Ask another person to join the effort and give them permission to catch the student doing things wrong…and right.

      Does that help Jon? Kind of a short version.

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  • G

    I would love to refer to this later —- you should consider adding a pintrest icon

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