If we’re to overcome difficult situations and move forward, its crucial that all involved can work co-operatively and constructively: Effective communication and sharing perspectives is key to this.

Even within small groups, people are constantly gaining new experiences and knowledge, whilst new differences and inequalities may come into our life situations. This means that communicating in a way that embraces and is sensitive to individuals’ perspectives, situations and needs is key if we are to discover and gain from any lessons learnt. Also, to ensure that everyone is enabled and empowered to contribute to, be motivated by, and to gain, as we seek opportunities and move forward into the future.

This article aims to help you achieve this at home and/or work.

Challenging Typical Communication Patterns

Communication should encourage the exchange of both instrumental (factual) information of how a task is to be done, and affective information that relays our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and often our values and beliefs.

Typically, our communication is instrumental. This is because many of us find telling others our feelings and emotions, or expressing our own perspectives as inappropriate, difficult or alien. And particularly at work or if we have come to repress our own emotions.

However, paying greater attention to our affective information, and encouraging others to share it has many benefits.

The Benefits of Affective Communication

Think of scenario when someone’s desire and urgency to achieve something has led them to push your and/or other’s affective perspectives to one side. You will know first-hand how this can potentially lead to; a breakdown in communication, stress, reduced co-operation and motivation, and lingering concerns that can create relational and operational distance.

Instead, sharing positive and negative affective information in an appropriate manner creates psychological safety. This allows everyone to feel accepted, and to openly express their personal thoughts and experiences without fear of harming others or of being shamed, belittled or dismissed. This cycle of openness, honesty and trust enables individuals to understand and feel connected to each other. And is a precondition of highly productive relationships. Why? Because it ensures:

  • A strong foundation for everyone to work together and to support and encourage each other through good and challenging times.
  • The sharing of ideas, creativity, learning and co-operation.
  • The confidence to be challenged and excitement for trying new initiatives.
  • Psychological wellbeing and the reduction of personal, family and workplace stress.
  • Decision-making that best ensures mutual benefit and the achievement of goals.

So …

How Do You Build a Psychologically-Safe Environment?

Whether it be at home or work, the following process applies. Consider each part within each role, be it as a partner/parent, a manager/leader or with colleagues. And also how to use it with individuals or across a whole organisation, team or family.

1. Know Yourself. There are many reasons why we too often unintentionally dismiss engaging with others’ affective experiences. Even with those we value most, we can; assume we know how they are experiencing, lie to prevent hurting them, prioritise our own perspective over theirs, judge them for not being like us, or just purely have a perception of insufficient time. Give honest consideration to how you engage with others:

  • Notice what you do.
  • Consider how others might perceive your interactions.
  • Note the consequences, intended or otherwise, for that individual, yourself and others.
  • Encourage honest feedback.

2. Align Yourself With Others. People will know if your words and actions are not genuine. Align yourself with others and attain empathy by: putting yourself in their situation; considering the beliefs, values and motives that you share; and reflecting on their strengths and why you value them..

3. Ask. As a matter of course, invite people to contribute their affective experiences, but particularly when emotion is evident. Then your aim is to do your best to understand their point of view. So…

4. Be Present. Eliminate distractions and pay complete attention to the person speaking. If emotions are high, sensitively comfort them as is acceptable within the relationship/situation.

5. Actively Listen:

  • Attend to Non-Verbal Messages: Notice whether non-verbal cues, e.g., facial expressions and body language, fit with what the person is saying. Be gently curious if there is a discrepancy.
  • Validate Their Experience: As you come to understand another’s experience, express acceptance. Remember that no affective experience is wrong or bad. This does not mean that you agree or approve, but conveys your support and that your relationship is important despite any differences.
  • Accurately Reflect: Summarising what you believe you have heard provides validation: Ensure they know they can correct you. If they’re experiencing emotion, focus on clarifying what it is and what is at the heart of the concern. Relevant, but unclear, facts can be clarified later if need be.

6. Normalise. If it’s reasonable that anyone in their situation would think or feel as they do, let them know. This reduces their concerns of being stigmatised or judged.

7. Share Understanding. If, and only if, you have been in a position to genuinely understand the individual’s situation and his/her emotion, you can share and demonstrate common understanding. But it’s vital to keep the focus on them. Otherwise you risk dismissing their experience with yours and failing to learn the message in their experience.

8. Be Positive. Overall, the content of your communications should be positive – although there are obviously times when you’ll need to be sensitive to the current moment and person. The above focus on empathy, gratitude and co-operation will help eliminate any criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and misplaced sarcasm and teasing that breeds negativity within an environment.

9. Reflect. Reflect regularly on the balance of your instrumental and affective communications. Use your own affective feedback and others’ verbal and non-verbal cues to make links between your communication and its short and long-term outcomes for yourself, others and common goals. Feed this back into ‘Know Yourself’ at the start of this process. Then continue to promote the cycle of psychological safety and its associated benefits.

Becoming Stronger Together. We all know that we can achieve more together. We all also know the importance of respect, consistent tolerance, humility and trust. There’s no doubt that when we communicate we intend to encourage positive outcomes, but we vary in our ability and confidence to engage in affective communication across different content and situations.

I hope this article helps you, your family and/or colleagues to regroup, communicate more effectively and move forward together through the challenges ahead with greater confidence.

This article was written by Caroline as a blog for the Football Medicine and Performance Association (published May 2019).

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