How to Improve Communication Skills Through Painting

Practicing Visual Thinking

“After my team discussed my painting, I was quite touched by how clearly folks saw my personality and strengths without me saying anything. I learned more about how my coworkers value me and how I fit into the team.”

— Isaiah M. 

Improve communication skills through painting - conversation during team building eventUsing painting to improve communication skills at work may seem like learning to high jump while swinging on a rocking chair People don’t sit down in front of a canvas to speak. Moving your brush over a canvas is typically the place where you get quiet. At least that is what I used to think.

Having worked with teams of all sizes and from different industries in the past few years has made me realize that my assumption about that was wrong. I came to understand that improving communication skills is actually a fundamental strength of painting with teams.

I found there to be four domains in which painting together in teams affects communication. Painting in teams produces:

  • Higher quality casual conversations
  • Enrichment through non-verbal conversation
  • Honest expression of each team member’s perspective
  • Candid, open conversations

Changing casual conversations —  the stories we tell one another

Sitting together to paint is an ideal background for casual conversations in which we get to know one another. Whereas typical small talk can feel stiff since there is some form of pressure to “make” conversation, sitting next to each other in front of canvases removes that pressure. While painting on canvas it is completely natural to zoom in and out of conversations. There is no awkward silence, no forced conversation about the weather these days, or the last football game. In short, there is no need to talk unless you want to. The reason is that when we paint there are phases when we are completely absorbed, focussed, and therefore silent — and other phases when we let the paint dry, our mind wanders, and we talk while adding a few brush strokes. This is why conversations ebb and flow naturally. It is ok to speak and it is ok to be silent —  there are no expectations.

Also, the topics of communication are different than typical water cooler conversation — more associative and free flowing. People actually get to know their colleagues in a new way. Inspired by a random element in a painting they end up talking about something that would have never come up in a regular work conversation. Introverts, especially, enjoy the less forceful nature of these casual stories and thoughtful exchanges. Painting allows to get to know a different side of one another. Getting to know and understand each other builds the trust we need to have open and honest conversations, to share what we really think.

Benefits of non-verbal communication

Remember the meetings you attended where the same person was always talking, and you heard the same point of view again and again? Have you worked in environments where some people always stayed quiet? It isn’t easy to make sure every voice gets heard. When team members use visual language instead of words to express their vision, goals, or ideas, the hierarchy in the room flattens. Everyone is recording their thoughts and perspective simultaneously on their own canvas. Everyone has the same amount of space, the same amount of time, the same value. Non-verbal communication changes the team dynamics because the loud voices can’t break through. Using visual communication calls for equal contributions — each voice is seen.

Since the conversation is not led by one person but by the group as a whole, the discussion becomes more democratic. This is an excellent way to avoid groupthink, a common and dangerous trap for teams. When groupthink happens, we make non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent. Groupthink leads to bad decisions because teams overlook problems that are covered up by a false sense of conformity. In teams where everyone gets to express their viewpoint before the team evaluates all of the options together, groupthink is much less likely to occur.

Honest expression

It is very easy to hide behind buzzwords and catchphrases when we have conversations at work. We have gotten so used to a certain lingo that we often don’t reflect the implications. We talk about shareholder value, paradigm, net present value, customer journey, growth hacking, etc., and often believe we communicate more clearly than we actually do.

Painting doesn’t know any of these buzzword-labels. Therefore, using visual thinking tools like painting can instigate authentic genuine expression that doesn’t hide behind pre-cut formulaic phrasings. For most people painting is an uncommon way to reflect and express thoughts and ideas. This turns out to be an advantage because as a beginner, there are no techniques available to rely on. Expressing ideas in a new medium that fosters kinesthetic thinking allows to find a fresh and pure perspective.

For example, I gave a workshop to a team that had several new hires and wanted to hone in on their mission statement to make sure everyone was working toward the same values. The mission statement described them as a customer-centric organization. Every participant was invited to express what this value meant for them visually through painting. The participants found it to be very eye opening to see where there were commonalities between the paintings and in which ways they emphasized differences. One team member painted a warm, inviting environment, using a lot of warm colors and round shapes. Another participant was focussing on simplicity, using a very distinct color palette and clear geometric forms. A third person created transparent, translucent layers.  A picture is worth a thousand words. A painting is able to express and discover complex meanings that are an excellent foundation for strategic planning, problem solving, or developing a vision. An additional bonus is that the visual message remains visible and can be referred back to at any time, whereas the spoken words in a conversation fade into memory.

Candid verbal conversations

Because the painting process fosters genuine self-expression, the (verbal) conversations that follow are more candid and authentic. After having painted their ideas —  which is a time of reflection and slowing down that is rare to find at the workplace — participants are in a state of higher awareness and thoughtfulness. This creates the ideal playground for meaningful, rich conversations.

Recently, I gave a team building workshop for a small tech startup with 15 employees to help them become aware of each other’s strengths and personalities. I noticed that there was one man who seemed withdrawn from the rest of the group. He barely talked to anyone before the event started, and wasn’t engaged in conversations throughout the painting process. When we started to talk about each painting afterwards he didn’t comment on any of them. And then, the group started to look at and talk about his painting. He sat up straight and listened attentively how his colleagues described him through his painting. In this process something must have shifted. Not only was he then open to discuss his intentions with the painting, he engaged in talking about all of the other paintings. His comments were thoughtful and insightful, and everyone started to pay close attention to what he was saying. This transformation happened in a very natural way. Nobody had to put him on the spot and say, “Hey, Joe, what do you think?” He realized that his input was valued and mattered, that he was seen.

Painting is always personal. There is no role or facade to hide behind. Every painting is tied to the personality of the painter. This experience gives leeway to respectful, open, and candid conversations. Only when we allow ourselves to be seen as who we are will our conversations be honest and meaningful.

Value of visual thinkingValue of Visual Thinking - expressing thoughts through painting

Conversations that combine visual and verbal thinking are so valuable because they encourage a complex yet concrete way of thinking and communication. Every partner in the conversation is 100% engaged and plays an equal role. Visual thinking tools use the power of metaphors, which provide space to include subconscious choices in addition to analytical reflections. We use our mind, our intuition, and our hands to express and communicate.

Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Painting invites us to think and communicate differently.



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