Does your team have a SPACE - a Safe Positive Authentic Communications Environment?

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated October 2019

..... If not then prepare to be surprised - and not in a good way!

Teams need a Safe Positive Authentic Communications Environment where each team member feels comfortable to be able to have honest and sometimes very difficult conversations with you and other team members. It needs to be Positive and Supportive but also Authentic and Real allowing difficult conversations to be held in a sensitive way.

To establish such environments, it is necessary for team members to be able to distinguish between what is an OPINION and what is a FACT. 

Facts are True or False - Opinions are Useful or Not Useful

A fact is something which can be verified objectively by two independent witnesses. “It rained in some parts of Belfast today” is a fact. An opinion, however, is a subjective judgement over which two independent witnesses may disagree. Based on the same fact I might voice the opinion “Northern Ireland is not a great place to live in because of the poor summers” but a local farmer might offer exactly the opposite opinion. Facts “ground” our opinions but don’t make them into facts. Grounded opinions are generally more useful than ungrounded ones but neither are true or false.

It follows that whilst facts can be verifiably true or false, opinions can never be verifiably true or false; they can only be useful or not useful to the hearer. 

Why is this important for Team Communications?

Without paying close attention to these distinctions, if you try to tell me that I could have done something better or differently, then, I may listen to this as a “fact” and feel that this is a personal attack on me rather than helpful feedback. My normal reaction will also be to dispute it as a “true fact” and argue the opposite. However, if I understand it is only an opinion, which can never be true or false, I can listen to it in a non-defensive way.

Likewise, if I am giving you feedback, but casual about these distinctions, I may try and argue and prove that I am in the right and my way of seeing is the only reasonable way of looking at the situation. This can render my feedback very hard to listen to and ultimately useless to the hearer in terms of them using it to change or improve.

This might all just seem common sense, but unless a team practices speaking and listening using these distinctions, then there will not be a safe communications environment. This means that important things which were absolutely vital for the team’s success will either be left unsaid or unheard. 

An effective team leader will be the exemplar of what a safe team communications environment looks like by encouraging honest feedback and challenge of their own opinions by colleagues on both a one-to-one and a team basis.

Do you have a safe team communications environment?

  • Do I encourage my team members to challenge me?
  • Do I react in a positive way when I am challenged and how do I know this?
  • Are my team members prepared to challenge each other?
  • Is there evidence of my team members helping and being helped by each other?
  • Do issues take a long time to be surfaced or just fester away?


Teams which have not invested in creating a safe team communications environment put themselves at severe risk of regular unexpected and unpleasant surprises. Leaders of such teams’ will constantly be complaining “why am I always the last one to know?”. Team-based Business Simulations such as XSIM and CHAPTER and SPREAD and CHAPTER provide an excellent environment for developing the necessary skills to develop such a safe team environment in a high pressure but supportive setting. 

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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