Communication styles - Working effectively as a team

Barry O Sullivan on June 11, 2018

This idea for this article came from a twitter thread by @ErynnBrook. Erynn Brook @erynnbrook I’ve got some time today, thinking about doin... [Read Full]
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I personally prefer the idea of a "critical thinking" communication style over the idea of a "competitive" style, or a "connective" style for that matter. That is, if I come up with a solution, I try to find as many problems with it on my own as I can. If someone else brings up a potential issue, that's also great.

The same goes in the other direction. If I present a potential issue with someone else's solution, it's not because I am playing a game of one-upmanship. It's because I'm trying to make sure the end result is the best possible. In bringing up a potential flaw, it's important to also be open to the possibility the I'm wrong, and actually it's not a flaw after all.

It's true that there is a human tendency to perceive criticism as a personal attack as well as to treat ideas as a competition with winners and losers. I would say such tendencies probably tend to lower the effectiveness of a given team or organization though. In my opinion, we should try to alter these tendencies toward a position of respectful and constructive critical thinking.

If there are several competing ideas and no way to find a sensible consensus, then the best approach may be to let several people or teams develop a proof of concept independently. In that context, a competitive aspect may actually be pretty helpful. So it's not that I think it's never good, but I feel like if there is a lot of internal competitiveness, that may be a bit of a bad sign.


Hey there, thanks for the reply.

I would say that one does not preclude the other, i.e. you can use either style of communication while applying critical thinking. I believe that critical thinking should always be "on" so to speak, it's a useful tool and helps us spot faulty reasoning, in both ourselves and others.

One thing I'd also clarify, pointing out flaws in an idea is not limited to the "competitive" style, it will definitely occur while in the "connective" style. The difference is that while "competing" you have the microphone and want to discuss what's on your mind (e.g. a potential solution to that problem), whereas when "connecting" you'll point out the flaw, then listen to what others have to say about it, gaining consensus.

I agree about our tendency to perceive criticism as an attack (infact, when I read your response that was my initial knee-jerk response, just being honest with myself) and I definitely agree that treating every idea as a competition is a zero sum game (there can only be one winner) and it's going to lead to a less effective team over all.

You definitely hit on an important distinction above, the difference between a "competitive" style and a "combative" style. When competing everyone knows the rules and tries to win by presenting the best argument. There are no hard feelings at the end, everyone is treated with respect and it feels more like a fun game. If you're combative however, you're actually attacking the other person's ideas (and potentially them), trying to win by bring the other idea/person down rather than bringing yourself up. This is when ideas are belittled and voices are raised. I consider this a degenerative form of the "competitive" style and I think it happens when team members are constantly competing and are never connecting.

Critical thinking will definitely help you spot when this is happening, as "combative" will tend to rely more on emotional arguments and logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks. Employing critical thinking and choosing the appropriate communication style can only benefit the team.


I agree about our tendency to perceive criticism as an attack (infact, when I read your response that was my initial knee-jerk response, just being honest with myself)

Hmmm, maybe my comment across as more aggressive or negative than I intended. :( Thanks for letting me know. I will try to work on that a bit more.

I honestly wouldn't, your comment was in no way negative or aggressive, I just read it immediately after waking up after a bad nights sleep, so I think that's the culprit right there. I only mentioned it because it re-enforced your point and I'm a fan of self awareness.

You gave some solid feedback and I appreciate it!


Thank you for the great article! It inspired me to write a follow up post in which I discuss in more detail on what can be done to facilitate a discussion.


A pleasure. I enjoyed your followup to it as well, some solid advice on how to implement it. Great job.


Thank you so much for writing this! I find myself tending towards a competitive style more than I should, but you explained why doing so can lead to undesired consequences.


This is a super great, non-judgemental writeup! Every team should read this!


Awesome post, definitely sharing with non-technical people I know, too. Thanks for sharing the tweet too!

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