Elevate Your Communication Skills by Understanding Transparency
Most managers and team members alike would agree that transparency fosters healthy, productive work environments. But what does transparency in the workplace actually look like, and how can both sides of any conversation give, receive, and use it productively?
Communicating transparently is easier said than done.
It requires toggling between the subjective and objective; identifying a truth known to you versus a truth known to someone else. It also requires an ability to observe all of those truths as impartially as possible. (That’s the really tough part.)
Transparency relies on passive acts, too: like listening, adapting, and collecting “data points” as they vary from person to person (or team of people!). Simply put: it takes a great deal of time and effort.
In this article, we’ll explore transparency on individual, team, and organizational levels. Starting with a personal frame of reference, we can identify and begin to work on the best modes of improving open, empathetic communication.
Self-Transparency: Confront the Self, First
Before confronting others, it’s absolutely necessary to check in with the self. Understanding your own context, biases, and motivation is the surest way to better understand what you’re actually trying to get out of a conversation with someone else.
This is the most involved step because it’s also the most important. To get started, give yourself the time and the framework to get clear on where you’re coming from.
To do that, we’re using the mental “box” model from The Arbinger Institute’s The Anatomy of Peace, wherein writers Yusuf al-Falah and Avi Rozen describe personal biases through a mental “box” framework of self-deception, grounded in the idea that whenever we enter a conversation — and especially a disagreement — we enter it from a predetermined place (a box). The box creates limitations on how we perceive the other person and, in turn, receive what they’re saying.
The four different mental boxes we typically “trap” ourselves in include:
Better Than. In a “better than” mental box, you see yourself as more righteous or superior to others. In workplace conflict, this equates to thinking your point or experience is the only one that could be correct.
Worse Than. Being stuck in a “worse than” mental box makes you feel the opposite way: like you’re fundamentally not as good or deserving as others. This could result in burying personal trials in the workplace because you feel you’re fated to lose anyway — while others are “lucky” and fated to win.
I Deserve. In the “I deserve” box, you’re feeling ill-treated or disrespected. In contrast to “worse than,” though, it stems from feeling under-recognized rather than valueless. From a conflict perspective, you’re likely to resent other team members for not fully recognizing your contributions or potential.
Must Be Seen As. This box makes you feel as though you’re constantly being watched, judged, or tested. It causes you to strive toward fitting in and being well-thought-of, even at the cost of personal need. In the workplace, this mental box may prevent you from recognizing conflict in the first place, let alone addressing it.
Once you’ve acknowledged how you’ve already showed up to the conversation — that is, which box you’re experiencing the situation from — you can climb out of the “box” to observe the conversation differently. Ask yourself:
How would you view the conflict if it weren’t affecting you directly; what advice would you give to someone else experiencing the conflict?
What about your previous experience with this other person might be getting in the way of you communicating transparently?
Is the issue you are discussing the real issue? If not, there’s more work to be done to repair and rebuild the relationship before you can speak transparently and effectively about solving anything.
If there aren’t underlying issues that you can think of, know that observing your own emotions around the situation can still help you consider the other person’s emotions, and therefore help you communicate from a place of greater empathy, understanding, and patience.
Team Transparency: Speak and Listen with Intention
Conflict becomes easier to understand once you’ve uncovered how you’re operating within it. In this section, we’ll explore how to translate that clarity into honest-yet fair-communication. That way, you can feel valued and pass that feeling onto your team members at the same time — even when speaking tough truths.
Consider these tips before communicating to ensure your transparency, and to receive an equally transparent response:
Approach with a heart of peace. The Anatomy of Peace also describes two contrasting mindsets in reference to conflict: a heart of peace and a heart or war. When viewing conflict through a heart of war, you’re dismissing the issue at hand by thinking of personal players as simple objects to be moved out of the way to achieve an end result or resolution (more on this below). With a heart of peace, you’re ready to listen and learn — understanding that resolution can only be achieved through mutual transparency.
Check back in with your data points. After fully listening to your team members, re-acknowledge your mental box, biases, and self-deceptions. Are you quick to interpret their transparency as a personal attack? If so, is that due to their lack of respect in this moment, or is it a result of your confirmation bias based on events of the past? Remember to interpret their points as objectively as possible, without tapping into your emotional response towards them.
Choose words carefully. Whenever possible, try to use language free of negative or violent connotations. For example, use “conflict” over an exaggerated word like “fight,” and “missed” rather than an accusatory term like “forgotten.” This may be a matter of common sense, but it’s often overlooked as we try to communicate the big picture, especially when emotions are running high or we’re feeling triggered.
Re-humanize your adversary. In tense situations, we often stop looking at the other person as a person; we view them, instead, as a blockage — a barrier to us being right or getting our way. In doing so, we objectify them. Instead, re-humanize them in your mind by remembering who they are outside of work and the disagreement. A great, quick technique to help you re-humanize the other person is to envision them enjoying a meal with their family or friends, or flashback to a positive moment you may have shared in the past. When we view each other as fellow human beings, we increase our likelihood of being able to empathize and learn, even in the most difficult moments.
Organizational Transparency: Give it a home
Maintaining transparency as a pillar of workplace communication and culture is similar to employees’ commitment to self and team transparency, but it goes one step further in that it has a home in the how of your organization. (Doing the work is one part of the organization, how people do it is the second part.)
Start by incorporating transparent communication into every aspect of your business. Make sure openness and honesty are apparent through policy that clearly reflects these practices as well as behaviors that model them:
Understanding. Make sure everyone on your team understands the personal applications of transparency (see above, Confronting the Self). This will help all parties evaluate a situation before acting which, in turn, should reduce the severity and duration of negative workplace conflict. With full understanding of the concept and expectations about what transparency looks like for your organization and team(s), the whole team can operate from the same starting point.
Accountability. Teamwork and cooperation are key to maintaining any key behaviors and values across an organization. That means transparency needs to be incorporated into communication strategy across the board — from management, to human resources, to individual contributors — in order to keep it in check. Reiterate its importance with every piece of communication and through each channel your company uses, while also keeping those channels open and accessible.
Understanding transparency and its effects on communication in the workplace takes time, but it’s actually the easier part. Now, all you have to do is put what you’ve learned into practice on a consistent, mutual basis. Perhaps most important: be kind to yourself throughout the process. No one is a perfect communicator, and we all get tripped up sometimes.
If you or organization needs help developing a framework for ensuring transparency is at the heart of your communication and proactive conflict management efforts, ONE EIGHTY can get you on track.