The Messenger :: Team Communication

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As we wrap up our series on how Team Work Makes the Dream Work, Andy Johnson, former missionary to Burkina Faso, Africa is going to help us consider some of the things that go into healthy communication on a mission team. He’ll structure the conversation about communication around the life cycle of a team, from what to consider at the beginning to potential pitfalls near the end.

Healthy communication is key for any great mission team. You'd be surprised by how making just a few tweaks can significantly improve the health and communication of your team. Keep reading to find out!

Avoiding Head-on Collisions on a Two-way Street

I love words.

I love that feeling when I find the word I was searching for. I love watching my young children use (and misuse—often to great fun!) newly-acquired words. I love bad puns (what do you do with a missionary who gets too old?).

That said, simply knowing all the words doesn’t make you a great communicator. There’s so much more that goes into it.

Study Each Other

On arrival to a new work, missionaries will (hopefully!) spend months learning the language, culture, and rhythms of life of their neighbors. Everything you do later is made more excellent by this “ministry of preparation.” Among many other things, you should also work to study your teammates and discover how they communicate.

For instance, I’m an internal processor. If I speak up in a group setting, I’ve already thought about a number of different possibilities, weighed them, and decided that what I want to say is worth bringing up. One of my teammates was at the opposite end of that spectrum. He processes verbally, outside the confines of his own mind. As he’s talking, he’s arriving at his conclusion. The process of speaking helps him discover what he believes. At first, this scared me, as I assumed he wanted to do everything he said. Then, I let it irritate me. Eventually, I recognized the gift that it was to watch his mind and heart at work, as well as the gift that I could bring to him by being a safe place to process out-loud.

As you are acquiring the heart language of the people you’ve come to serve, take the time to learn how your teammates communicate in their own heart language.

Get Out of the Office!

I played a lot of catch with one of my teammates (he was a stand-out baseball player).

I watched a lot of soccer with another (we both loved “real” football).

I played a lot of bluegrass music with another (we both had tough ears that could survive that kind of abuse).

The point is that we intentionally worked to discover connection points with each other outside of our normal ministry. The trust that was built, the dreaming and brainstorming that organically happened, and the friendships that expanded all contributed to our longevity on the field and made our working relationships all the better.

Be Around Each Other

While the exact percentages vary, a great deal of communication happens not through the words spoken, but through the tone, volume, gestures, and expressions that accompany them. One of the downsides of communication via text, email, or some other platform, is that non-verbals get stripped away from your communication. What started as a heartfelt or maybe lighthearted communication can end up looking aggressive or overly dramatic in print.

A few bullet points to consider:

  • Meet regularly as a team. Don’t allow “virtual meetings” to replace face-to-face communication.

  • Take an extra moment to discern whether an important conversation should be handled via text/email or if it warrants an in-person conversation.

  • Reread your emails and texts before sending, paying careful attention to how the content may be perceived by your teammate.

Have Clear Expectations

My coworker Jay spoke eloquently to the need for clear expectations last month. This is particularly true when it comes to communicating during times apart. Whether a teammate is on furlough or traveling, healthy teams express their expectations for each other while on the road.

Our team had a number of rules about furloughs. First, engage in the spiritual discipline of intercessory eating for each other (probably why I put on 15lbs per furlough). Second, write back in a timely fashion when you receive a team meeting agenda. Silence equaled agreement with whatever your teammates on the field decided. This corrected a number of needlessly-tense interactions when furloughing folks spoke up after the fact of decisions already made.

Learn this Truth: The most important part of talking is listening.

When your teammate (or any human God puts in front of you) is speaking, listen! Engage with his train of thought. Seek to understand more than to be understood. Let her get all her words out before you start forming how you’re going to respond. Don’t talk over his last words to try and claim the floor. Work to create a culture where everyone gets their turn in conversations, not just the loudest and most assertive.

I thought I was a really good listener. I maintained eye contact; I leaned in; I drank in what people said in team meetings. The only trouble was that I was freaking out one of my teammates! She was intimidated by how intense I seemed, how my eyes bored into hers, and how I seemingly never looked away or smiled (I never considered that my 5’8” self could be intimidating!). An important part of active listening is providing feedback. It turns out that once I started nodding my head, making grunts of agreement, and occasionally even smiling, I became a much more tolerable presence in team meetings! My teammate’s boldness in letting me know what I could do to make her feel more listened-to greatly increased our ability to work together.

Speak the Truth in Love

It takes courage to have what have been called “crucial conversations,” but they are worth it in maintaining team health. No group of people—no matter how dedicated they might be to a common cause—will ever navigate any significant event or season of life without some level of conflict or tension. Healthy teams establish early on that truth telling is a virtue, and it must be done in love.

There are two key ingredients to creating this atmosphere. The first is vulnerability. Someone (and preferably not the same someone every time) needs to lead the way in being vulnerable about what they’re feeling and how it affects them. The second is regular, honest affirmation. When individuals know they are loved and appreciated, they will be far more apt to engage in loving, truth-filled hard conversations that ultimately bring life to a team.

Decathecting: Don’t Do It

Decathecting is the process of pulling away from people emotionally, particularly in anticipation of a loss (either a death or a move away). Basically, it means that you will be tempted not to put in the hard work necessary for maintaining healthy team communication when you know a team member is leaving. Do not give in to this. Preserve relationships. Don’t burn bridges. Communicate through transitions. These are the times you will most need clear communication from your teammates.

Teams are interesting things on the mission field. In one sense, your team is one church among those you go to help establish or bless; it is a very real expression of the bride of Christ. In another, “team” is a means to an end, one of the tools you will use to expand the Kingdom. Regardless of how you consider your team at any given moment, healthy communication is always an essential element to bringing better honor to the Father through loving and honoring your coworkers.

And for the record—that missionary who gets too old? You put him out to “pastor.”


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