Communication: You're doing it wrong


I have been feeling like my posts have been a bit pie-in-the-sky lately, so I thought I’d bring them down to the earthly plane for a bit and talk about a competency that everyone needs to possess and anyone can hone: effective communication.  Communications skills, or more specifically, lack thereof, are at the root of countless organizational problems, ranging from interpersonal difficulties to org alignment and change management breakdowns. Bottom-line costs to organizations for communication failures are substantial. The flip-side is that organizations led by leaders who are highly effective communicators reap significant dividends.

Communication is a pretty broad topic of course – we could be talking about oral or written communications, formal or informal types, or organization-level vs. individual-level communication.  But whether we are communicating via email, newsletters, proposals, presentations to the board, town hall meetings, or conversations in the hallway with colleagues, there are some nuts and bolts that are common to each which determine your effectiveness. If you observe really strong communicators, they demonstrate, to my mind, four essential skills: (1) They display economy of words, valuing brevity and conciseness (over buzzwords and bizspeak); (2) they show skill in painting a vivid visual picture to engage the listener; (3) they balance speaking with effective active listening; and (4) they have presence (including effective body language).

To appreciate why these elements are foundational, we have to consider the purpose and process of communication.  Through communication we are able to share and exchange information, thoughts, and ideas, usually with the goal of achieving some impact on others, such as increasing awareness, achieving a common understanding, or persuading others to take some action. The clincher is that communication is bi-directional – it’s a two-way street.  So while we may feel that we are excellent communicators, effectiveness is really in the eye of the beholder, which is why we need to be able to see through the eye of that beholder, not just our own eyes.  Information that is communicated is processed internally by the receiver – messages aren’t received whole, they are broken down, observed through sometimes distorted or distracted lenses, and reassembled based on the existing notions and emotions in the mind of the receiver. Emotional and situational constraints and differences in personal style relating to conflict and personality can all conspire to make communication, even between two like-minded people, feel like a game of ping pong, with a ball bouncing back and forth but never really getting through.

Barriers to effective communication obviously don’t just exist on the receiving end.  The more I thought about the “four keys” to effective communication, the more I realized that they are in turn driven by certain personal attributes.  Specifically, clarity of mind drives brevity in speech;  confidence drives presence; and a genuine interest in and concern for others prompts active listening and the ability to paint a picture that engages the audience’s heart.  Above all, the character expressed through candor, authenticity, and integrity are what makes a sound communicator someone who gets listened to.  People who are centered, with their hearts and minds aligned toward a clear goal, are better able to articulate a vision that other people care to hear about and get behind.

So while we can focus on skill building all the live long day, we also need to concern ourselves with building the foundation of a strong character.  And how do we build character?  Four more bullets, maestro! (1) Cultivate empathy; (2) eliminate fear; (3) develop meta-cognitive skills; and (4) fake it ’til you make it. Empathy is the ability to see things from others’ perspectives.  Without it, you would not be able to position your communication in a way that is meaningful to the listener.  Fear – fear of failure, fear of disarming oneself – will prevent people from being completely honest and authentic in their communications.  Not only does this narrow the “pipe” through which information can flow, people sense when others are not fully forthcoming, which in turn impacts how they perceive both you and your message.  Meta-cognitive skills are the ability to think about your thinking.  It is what let’s you ask yourself if you are being completely forthright, if you are really looking at things from another’s perspective, if there is another way you could say something that would be better received, if the end you are trying to achieve is a valid one and will lead you to your ultimate goal.

These are obviously not simple skills to acquire and hone.  These are a life’s work of personal and professional development.  Which is why the last piece is so important – fake it ’til you make it.  If you remember my post about Amy Cuddy’s work on power (not to mention numerous other studies in this vein), you will remember that this colloquialism is in fact rooted in something real – your behavior changes the workings of your brain, which in turn changes your behavior. In our programs, we often provide skills training in active listening.  The framework we use is called the CAPS model – clarify, acknowledge, probe, and summarize.  During practice, these steps can feel awkward at first.  Sometimes people feel like performing them “artificially” feels inauthentic, false even.  But as someone who is not a natural active listener, instead preferring to bulldoze my way through conversations and figuratively beat the listener into submission through force of words and repetition, I have learned that it is in fact true that through practice, you can move through this phase to a place where active listening is an integrated part of your repertoire.  And these skills feed each other – when you slow down enough to make yourself listen to others, you become more empathetic to their perspective.  When you understand their perspective, you can better position your own communication to fit the needs of the audience and the situation.

Communication skills are a critical interpersonal competency, especially for managers and leaders whose very role demands that they work effectively with and through others.  And while skills training can and should be an important part of developing a leader’s effectiveness and skill set, we should also not lose sight of the underpinnings of character that naturally give rise to effective, engaging communication.