The art of communication is the language of leadership. James C. Humes
No question about it, communication is an art. No matter how skilled or knowledgeable you are, if your communication skills are subpar, your leadership and management skills will be too.
Communication encompasses a broad spectrum: there’s email, memos, reports, phone, video conferencing, and, what I’d like to focus on here, the old-fashioned face-to-face.
I work with many individuals who are brilliant at what they do but become baffled by the fact that their direct reports don’t understand them or that their superiors are not recognizing them for promotions.
Here are five of the most common communication disconnects I see in the individuals I coach.
1) Muddled Messages:
Time is money and most people don’t like to waste time sifting through an avalanche of words to figure out what you are really trying to say. I always tell my clients to figure out their bottom line in any important communication. For any message you need to relay, ask yourself this question: “If my listener remembers just one thing, what do I want them to remember?” That “one thing” is your bottom line or core message. You can then shape the rest of the communication around that bottom line (I suggest using a mind map). It also helps to use specific language in your communication to reinforce your message. For example, actually saying, “If you remember just one thing today…” improves the chances of that one thing being remembered. Other phrases to include: “The bottom line is…” “This is extremely important.” And find ways to repeat your core message whenever possible. Statistics show that people forget 40% of what you say in one-hour!
2) Selective Listening:
I recently heard and saw experiments on the sobering fact that our perception is our reality. What this means for office communication is that sometimes we have a perception of someone we work with–a perception which may or may not have a valid basis–and that perception becomes our reality. Maybe your perception is “He hates his job and doesn’t want to be here” or “She’s after my position” That perception colors every action and every communication that that person makes. This results in our thinking that we already know what someone else is going to say so we let our own judgments/perception get in the way of listening to what’s really being said. And of course, while that person is speaking, we are thinking of what we are going to say based on our PERCEPTION of what it is we THINK they are saying. Let’s stop the madness! When you’re having an important conversation with an employee, breathe and focus. Take time to listen carefully and actively to your employees and try to leave old perceptions out of it.
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging prejudices” William James.
3) Passive/Non- Listening
“Why would anyone listen to you if he felt you had not first listened to him?” -Dr. Xavier Amador
Of course, you might answer this. Because I’m their boss”, in which case I say good luck. You may get results but you will probably also get lots of passive-aggressive resistance and other negative behavior. In order to get anyone to listen to you, it’s important to make them feel that they are also being listened to. Here are some ways to listen actively:
o Use an open body position: The torso is the most vulnerable part of the body and when it is “exposed” it engenders more trust and openness in your listener. So avoid crossed arms or sitting behind large desks when you’re looking to connect with a direct report.
o Nod: People will talk three times as long if you nod while you’re listening to them. So, if you want your employees to really share what’s on their minds, nod in sets of three while you listen.
o Reflect: It’s also helpful to show that you have heard someone by using reflective listening, paraphrase (NOT parrot) what you heard them say. “So if I’m understanding you correctly you want to…” “Okay, so what I hear you saying is that …” This makes the person feel heard and gives them an opportunity to clear up anything you may have misunderstood or misinterpreted.
4) Being tone-deaf
Very often, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it. According to communication research by Professor Albert Mehrabian, 38% of oral communication depends on the sound of our voice. All the positive feedback in the world, spoken in an angry or dismissive tone will lead to mixed signals at best, anxiety, mistrust and poor morale at worst.
Two of the most common tonal issues I see are:
o Asking instead of telling: This is most common in female leaders but it is becoming a more equal opportunity offense. This is a tone I call up-speak (making everything sound like a question) Managers who want to make sure that their peers and direct reports like them, really, really like them, will use this tone so that they don’t sound like they’re giving orders. Huge problem. Making declarative sentences sound like questions makes your listener wonder how confident and knowledgeable you really are.
o Professional Monotone: On the other end of the up-speak spectrum, is the rushed, staccato flat monotone. Many people associate this tone with power and authority. Then use that tone for ALL their communication. Bear in mind that according to volumes of research, employees will respond to the tone of your communication, before the actual words. Make sure you vary your pitch, use inflection and intonation to emphasis words or phrases that are more important and pause occasionally to allow listeners to either take in what you are saying or ask questions.
5) Mis-matched Styles:
By far the most common occurrence in workplace communication is the failure of people to comprehend that their preferred way of delivering and receiving information may be completely foreign and incomprehensible to their co-workers. Your communication style may be so completely different than someone else’s that it can be almost like you speak different languages. This disconnect creates huge communication log jams. Assessment tools like DiSC profile are extremely helpful for enlightening managers as to the communication styles of their peers and direct reports. As an executive coach, I often use the Everything DiSC assessment tool to help clients see their own style and understand why the way they are communicating is not working for an employee or colleague who uses a completely different communication style. I’ve also recently published my own book on communication and presentation skills, Standing Ovation Presentations, (Motivational Press, 2013) and have identified my own nine different communication styles which I call ActorTypes.
Whether it’s DiSC, Myers Briggs or my ActorTypes, I feel it’s very important for managers to know what their personal communication style is as well as the communication style of their staff. With training and understanding, you can learn how to tailor your communication to be better understood or coach them to communicate in a way that is easier for you to understand.
It’s not enough these days to be skilled and knowledgeable. With an extremely diverse workforce, it’s time for leaders to become skilled in the subtle arts of communication if they want to succeed. Let me help you!