Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Better Communicator, Better Leader

One aspect of leadership few people consider is the quality of the information coming in to the leader.  No matter how masterful the chef, if the quality of the ingredients he is given is poor, there is only so much he can do with it.  Someone tasting his creation with the bad ingredients might mistake him for a poor chef, even though his skills were top-notch.
only so much you can do with bad ingredients
Information is the raw ingredient of leadership.  No matter how polished our leadership skills, if we are receiving bad information, or little information, there is only so much we can do with it.  Our leadership will be constrained by the quality and amount of information we have access to.  For that reason this week’s entry is about communication- giving and receiving.  The tips offered here are liberally adopted from Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy’s text Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience.   

As leaders, if we are not effectively communicating with others, we cannot work with and through them.  They won't understand our vision and won't be motivated.  They may not even understand the rewards we are using to encourage them toward certain desired behavior.  

On the other side, if we are poor listeners, people will eventually stop communicating as much with us.  We’ve all been in the situation where we’re trying to talk to someone and they are clearly not listening to us.  They may be looking at their phone, or focusing their eyes on some far away spot behind our heads, but we know they aren’t really hearing us.  And then there are those who are just waiting for their turn to talk.  I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at reading people and when I encounter one of these people, I just stop trying to communicate.  I may listen politely to what they have to say, but I’ve decided it isn’t worth my effort to try to tell them something they don’t want to hear.

"Do you want some of my ice cream Paul?   ...Paul?"

So, without further ado, here are some tips to improve your communicating and listening skills:

  • Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. what message are you trying to get across?  If you don’t know, they certainly won’t.
  • Make sure you have the right audience.  Who needs to hear this message?  Is it the person you are talking to or are they just conveniently standing right in front of you at the time?
  • Consider what medium is best for your message: spoken, written, or some other form?  What does each one say about your message?  As Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message."
  • Create a frame of reference.  If you let your audience know generally what you are about to talk about, they will better be able to understand your message.  If you don’t, they might listen to the first third of what you have to say before saying “Oh, THAT’S what we’re talking about.”
  • Pace yourself.  Make sure you aren’t suffering from what an old teacher of mine so delicately  called “verbal diarrhea.”  Make sure you are speaking clearly and with the right cadence.
  • Emphasize important points.  Don’t assume that your audience will automatically know what your most important points are.  Repeat them. 
  • How many layers of communication are you dealing with?  Are you speaking directly to your audience or are you asking someone to relay a message?  The more layers you are dealing with, the more direct and clear the message should be so it doesn’t get mixed up along the way (remember the telephone game?). 
  • Consider timing and emotion.  This goes for both you and for the recipient of this message.  Emotion can cloud both delivery and reception of a message, so be mindful.  If you just got a $500 utility bill minutes before a conference call, be aware that you might be bringing some baggage with you, and be careful not to let it influence the delivery of your message.  Similarly, if someone just got laid off, it probably isn’t the best time to tell them you are concerned about their recent weight gain.  They will hear your message through the lens of their frustration and anger.
  • Don’t compete with surrounding “noise.”  If there are distractions, know when to talk over them and when to wait.  If you have ever heard a person continue to speak as their cell phone is ringing loudly in their pocket, you know how hard it is to concentrate over distractions.
  • Consider any biases or assumptions the receiver might have that might interfere with your message.  For instance, if that person is strongly political they may not objectively hear your message on the fairness of a local election law that allowed a certain candidate to win. 
  • Choose an important context.  Meeting someone in a coffee shop is different than meeting them in a boardroom.  Office door open sets the tone differently than office door closed.  Even the angle of the chairs that you are sitting in can help or hinder communication (90 degrees, like they do on talk shows, fosters open communication).
  • Don’t be afraid to confirm that your message has been received and understood.
  • Demonstrate non-verbally that you are listening.  This can be as simple as direct eye contact and nodding at the right time, or going as far as mirroring them (they lean forward at the table, you lean forward). 
  • Paraphrase. Respond to what is said by saying again in your own way in a question.  For example, if someone says “I can’t believe how bad that meeting went!” you can say “Do you mean because of what Arthur said to the client?”
  • Pick up on their body language.  Crossed arms indicate someone is closed off.  Leaning back with hands folded behind the head conveys confidence and authority.  Some say you can even tell whether a person wants to get out of a situation by checking to see if their feet are pointing toward the door.  Since so much communication is nonverbal, body language is a great source of information.
  • Try not to talk over them, or become defensive.  The more strongly you react, the more they will modify their original message (and you won’t get to hear what it was), or they might simply stop talking altogether.  
By trying to practice these simple guidelines, you will increase the amount and quality of the flow of communication coming both from you and to you.  The better the information coming in, the more in tune you will be with your organization.  And the more in tune you are, the better you can strategize and lead others.

Or, if you prefer to speak plainly and aren't concerned about how others see you, just take the following approach:

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