The cornerstone of great leadership is effective communication, but it’s not as simple as memorizing a few strategies and putting them into practice.
The trick is that communication isn’t dependent only on you as the communicator.
Connecting with your team, inspiring your direct reports, and really understanding your clients requires a bit of give-and-take.
Remember that effective communication is much more than delivering a soliloquy of Shakespearean quality – effective communication is a dialogue; it flows two ways.
Certainly, there will be times you’re giving a message, but even then you need to ensure that you know and reach your target audience and that they understand what you’re sharing.
Even the most undebatable directive needs to be delivered in a way that the recipient understands it the way you meant it.
Personal relationships can be made or broken based on the success of communication.
The same goes for the workplace, where good communication can translate into thriving teamwork, brilliantly executing strategy, and deftly handling challenges.
“Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if this is the most important conversation you will ever have with this person. It could be. Participate as if it matters. It does.”
Oftentimes communication requires intuition, knowing your audience, and being able to listen well. There are verbal and non-verbal cues to watch for, plus times when you have to adapt and manage how you deliver the information. Both verbal and written bring challenges with tone and delivery.
Leaders need to communicate well during good times and bad, as well as sometimes off the cuff. It’s a tough thing to do! Or, at least to do well…
So when there’s no single model of effective communication and circumstances can change, how do we improve?
Let’s review some cornerstones of effective communication.
What is effective communication?
You may remember business class definitions of effective communication something like “when the message sent is easily understood by the recipient.”
That’s true, but there’s so much nuance around effective communication that it’s potentially more valuable to consider what it looks like when people are communicating effectively.
We can see certain outcomes when there is effective communication in an organization:
- There is clarity and consistency in the message that’s being shared.
- The information is delivered in such a way that those listening can paraphrase the outcome of the conversation in a similar way.
- Everyone feels heard and safe to express their thoughts, offer feedback, or seek further clarification.
Another thing we’ll see is that the message aligns with the mission and values of an organization.
A leader who is effectively communicating is giving information, but how they are giving the information is in tune with the situation and has an impact on the recipients. It’s offered with the right tone and style of delivery because non-verbal communication is as important as verbal.
How do you make communication more effective?
Experience helps leaders deal with different situations. As the saying goes, with age comes wisdom – and most leaders will tell you about communication skills they learned the hard way.
Regardless, there are some ideas you can keep with you that will help you avoid some of the missteps. Like most things in life, having the desire to really get better at this, is an important first step.
Leaders who communicate effectively are informed, having cultivated a strong sense of the situation and context for communicating. While they can articulate their thoughts and make sure they are understood, they’re also able to deliver a message that will resonate, build trust, and drive people to action.
That trust assures their team that they want to hear the bad news as much as the good and that they want to be challenged on their ideas and direction.
They know that good communication is built on a foundation of trust and confidence, not only in their skills as a leader, but also their feelings towards their staff.Good communicators are also exceptionally observant. Pay attention to what’s said, how it’s said, and what’s not said. If you’re able to read a person or the room, you’ll gain a sense of attitudes and concerns of those around you.
As you communicate, watch the reactions you get. Do people understand you? How do you know? With practice, skilled communicators are able to easily change how they communicate to suit the needs of the audience and handle questions.
Try to be clear and direct so there is no confusion about what you’re saying.
Now let’s drill down into more specific ways we can improve communication.
Listen to understand, not to respond
There’s no way around it: To be a good communicator you have to be a good listener. It’s so tempting, especially when you’re busy, to leap ahead to an answer.
And how many of us are guilty of getting distracted so that we’re only half-listening to begin with?
Think about trying to talk with someone who dismisses your concerns or keeps checking phone messages. Now consider a conversation where the other person is listening intently and has made you a priority. Can you think of a time that happened — and how you felt? Seen? Heard? Understood? As a leader, how often do you really listen to others?
By examining what kind of listener you are, you can learn techniques for active listening and practice listening before you speak. This way, anyone coming to you feels heard (which is often what people we ask consider the hallmark of a great boss!).
Effective listening also improves communication flow in the workplace. Even if you don’t agree, being able to understand the other person’s thoughts can help you resolve issues (because you’ll really understand where they’re coming from!).
There’s a lot of talk about finding authenticity in your personal life, but it’s just as important for anyone in a leadership role. What does it mean to be your authentic self? It means to be comfortable in who you are, transparent about the good and the bad as you strive to be your best. If you’re genuine, it’s perceived as trustworthy.
That means saying, “I was wrong” when you were, or “I’m sorry” when you are. You have to ask for help when times are tough. A fragile ego usually shows up not as fragile, but as defensive, opinionated, blustering, and bullying.
A fragile ego will never build trust and confidence, but inviting and valuing input from your highly skilled team will.
Most of us who have struggled with vulnerability have struggled because we worry we’ll look weak, when in reality, most times, it builds respect and people see you as brave and leading by example.
Cater your communication style
Just turn on the news any day and there’s likely a story about misunderstood messaging. Think of all the times advertising missed the mark, a celebrity misspoke, or a corporate leader or politician is in hot water for saying something that was maybe misconstrued.
Now think of times when you have thought you gave a very clear message that was not received as you expected at work or home.
What factors come into play? Sometimes it’s a disconnect in education or understanding. Other times there’s trouble if we use “loaded” language terms. Sometimes emotions get in the way and no one is listening.
As leaders, we have to adapt our communication styles to suit not only the situation but also the way those around us communicate. What we glean from being observant helps us to cater to the way people receive the message.
For example, you probably wouldn’t use language picked up in your MBA program when you’re talking with front-line workers about service standards, as you might for the executive team, but you also don’t want to talk down to your frontline people.
You need to think about what will resonate for the person you’re speaking with, what will conjure images from their experience? You’re just going to adjust how you share the message so that it’s heard and received well.
Review our five steps to catering your communication style to help you communicate effectively with all types of people.
Leave space for silence
I want to challenge you to try using silence to your advantage. That’s right: Good leaders need to make room for silence.
It’s tempting to keep the conversation going or to jump in with information, but allowing room for silence in conversations and during meetings gives other people time to ponder and then share thoughtful ideas.
Giving space for studious reflection can be as simple as a long pause after asking a question.
I get that some of you might dread an awkward lull, but consider the benefits of the sound of silence. Try these techniques and see how communication, real two-way communication, flourishes.
Don’t shy away from conflict
In a perfect world, effective communication would eliminate arguments and interpersonal confrontations. It can help reduce tensions but the reality is you’re going to still encounter challenging situations and personalities.
Some people confront conflict head-on, some relish it and others avoid it. I’d like to propose you try turning difficult conversations into essential conversations.
When you employ this model for conflict resolution, you can have an essential conversation to gain understanding and come to a resolution. Try it and you may relish the opportunity to uncover concerns and emotions.
In fact, one of our mantras at Padraig is that very successful teams aren’t afraid to build conflict (you read that right – build conflict!). Now by conflict I don’t mean issues between people or infighting. That’s not healthy and needs to be cleared up. The conflict we encourage is conflict around ideas.
What we find is that when teams have trust, they can share ideas freely. They can debate, challenge, and argue to find the best solutions or improvements.
As a good leader, you should sense if there are unspoken disagreements or differing opinions and ask about them. The conversations that arise out of healthy conflict result in valuable discussions.
Click Here for our Essential Conversation Toolkit!
What will you implement today? This week? How will you integrate some of these communications best practices into your daily practice?