Leadership Effectiveness: Make Your Communication Count

Leadership Effectiveness: Make Your Communication Count

In our executive coaching practice, we have gotten to know some leaders who are very well-intentioned, want the best for their company and their employees, and are wise in the ways of leadership. We know all that about them, so how is it that their employees do not? This is a serious communications gap. Communication is often an under-developed skill that gets overlooked, in favor of the harder skills it takes to run an organization.

We all experience, from time to time, situations where our own poor communication has gotten us into trouble. Overall, this is not a rare phenomenon. Here is a contemporary example (and it is linguistic, not political): HBR: Trump, Comey, and the Ambiguity of “Hope.”

We begin a Strategic Executive Coaching® engagement with a leadership and values assessment to understand others’ perceptions of a leader’s leadership style. We will often hear themes along the lines of “he has the knowledge, but he does not listen,” “she has the skills and experience, but she does not clearly state expectations,” “he is a good strategist, but he does not communicate clearly or well one-on-one or in email.”

What can leaders do to become better communicators?

This is a huge subject and we are addressing a very small piece of it. Our main point is that good communication is something people work at. It is like going to the gym and building muscle. It is not either innate or a lost cause. It is not a one-time class and you are now a good communicator. Again, like going to the gym…you have to keep building those muscles. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

For emails:

  1. If an email has the potential to be controversial, don’t send it out immediately. Write it. Re-read it. Sleep on it. Read it in the light of day. Think about it. Edit. Proofread. Send.
  2. Even for messages that do not have the potential to cause an implosion, take steps to improve the recipient’s understanding. If you are responding to someone’s email, read it carefully. Wait. Compose your response. Read it aloud to yourself to see if it sounds understandable. Or read it to someone else to see if they know what you are talking about.
  3. Know your audience and reconsider how careful you need to be. What is most important? Speed? Clarity? Preservation of relationship? Figure it out and act accordingly.

For conversations:

  1. Again, there is value in slowing down. And listen. Really listen.
  2. Check for understanding if you have any doubt at all. You don’t want to respond to an idea that was never expressed by the other person. And it buys you time.
  3. Don’t be afraid to say you need to “think about it” and you will get back to the person. This is much better than making something up or responding in a way you will regret later.
  4. When facing a difficult conversation, planning is key. You owe it to yourself and the other person to ensure you don’t just happen into an important conversation without being clear about what you know, what you don’t know, how you want to deliver your message, what your goals and the other person’s interests are, and how you will ensure next steps are identified.

What you say and how you say it both count. The old aphorism is that 7% of communication is verbal—the actual words—55% is body language, and 38% is tone of voice. Of course, in our electronic world, we have eliminated 93% of the signals. Make sure you remember, when you are physically present, your listeners are not just listening—they are watching, hearing, and absorbing signals. Have you ever spoken with someone who smiles while telling you a heart-rending story? It is quite disconcerting. Make sure that all your signals—verbal and non-verbal—align. If you do not do this, at best, the other person will be distracted, at worst, they will be completely confused.

The overarching point is how easy it is for human beings to misunderstand each other. Communicating for understanding, improving relationship, and reaching goals is hard. It is work. It does not fall into the “no-brainer” column. Practice building those muscles.

Can you think of times you have been misunderstood? What was your contribution to that and what can you do differently going forward?

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