Tips on Effective Communication for Leaders

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“Communication is the real work of leadership.” – Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business School Professor

Leaders know that communication is essential to their success. It is the HOW of communicating that can be challenging– especially when the message is a hard one, such as a tough performance message, a shift in direction or a change in resource allocation.

Clients don’t ask me for help when there is something joyous or celebratory to communicate. Nope, when the message is good, we’re good. But when the message is hard – meaning that we can reasonably expect resistance, reluctance, defensiveness, or other feelings – then it is human nature to want a magic formula to convey the message so skillfully that the recipients get the message without drama and have some energy left to give us a standing ovation for our communication expertise.

Sadly, there is no magic to share. Communicating effectively is hard work because it means connecting with “them”, you know, “the others”— our staff, colleagues, management, all of whom have different data, personalities, goals, needs, values, dreams and limitations. Let’s face it, when we’re talking to our selves (in the car, in the shower, in our heads while other people’s mouths are moving), we are quite the amazing communicators.

But here is the rub… communicating effectively not only involves “them,” but it requires “them” to:

1. Leave the exchange “getting a message” that they didn’t have or understand before the exchange

2. Be able, either immediately or in the short-term, to resolve whatever feelings they are likely to have from our tough or complicated message so that:

3. They can go forth and act on that message in ways that are better for the system

Otherwise, why would we care about ‘communicating effectively’ at work?

So how do we connect with “them?” Start by making it your goal to turn the “them” into an “us.” Your communication shouldn’t be a lecture, but a conversation, an exchange of ideas, the creation of at least understanding, if not agreement.

Here’s my formula (but it is still not magic):

Clear + Candid + Timely + Two-way = Effective Communication

Clear This means that the essential message(s) have been simplified to their essence BEFORE the communication or conversation happens. I don’t like it when leaders say, “Well, Laurie, it’s complicated.” So de-complicate it for me. Use real words, not corporate-speak that masks the meaning or feels “easier” to say. Don’t download it as you got it—translate! Of course, there are better ways of saying things, but there is more damage than gain in spinning a message so completely that recipients walk away thinking that they have unlimited advancement potential when in reality, promotions are becoming fewer and more competitive. Finally, be clear about what YOU stand for or intend via the communication—Leaders are not carrier pigeons for hard messages—we stand for and with the messages we convey.

Candid If you are struggling with a communication, there’s likely a “hard” part of the message. (Remember, we don’t need help telling people that their BONUS is the highest in the company.) Being candid means telling the hard part simply and courageously. Don’t try to “protect” yourself or the other person—or make them guess what it is you are really trying to say. Put it out there, so you can deal with it together.

Timely I’m going to guess that at this moment, there are anywhere from three to five hard conversations that you might be avoiding. Putting it off or telling everyone else but the people involved is not going to make it easier – and will likely make it harder. Schedule one today. Too early is almost always better than too late.

Two-Way This is where you open up your ears and mind and close your mouth. You’ve said what you had to say, now let them talk. And really listen. If you wait… if you invite… if you let them convey their entire thought before shutting them down (either out loud or in your head), then you might hear something you didn’t expect or never thought of. Look for common ground.

The challenge is putting it the components together and bringing them to life in your interactions with others. This can’t be done “off the cuff.” It takes thought, preparation and hard work. Here are some additional tips:

Factor in Our Feelings. The words, the pace, the style are rarely what get us into trouble with communication effectiveness. It is almost always our emotions (guilt, anger, fear), especially if our feelings are unbalanced, unmanaged, unresolved, unspoken or unchecked. This can lead us to say too much, too little or not speak at all. Or leave out the positives (hope, vision, celebration). Or blame “them” for having to have an in-depth conversation in the first place.

Get crystal clear on the essential message and its implication BEFORE sitting down with the person. Worry some about the words. Worry more about getting clear and clean and transparent about what you have to share and the emotion.

Be Clear About What Can Change. Are you conveying something that is fixed, that the recipient cannot influence, only accept, such as negative performance information or a challenging organization change? Or is there a discussion or exchange of alternative views that could ALTER what happens immediately, short term or long term? But even if the person can’t influence the result, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a dialogue. Just focus it more on clarification and understanding, than on action or solutions.

Phrases for Better Inquiry

“Tell me more”

“How do you see this?”

“Help me to understand.”

“What am I not seeing?”

“What is your reaction to what I have said?”

It’s OK Not To Know. It’s ok to say “I don’t know” as long as you have tried to share what you can. Make real distinctions that grownups can hear and respect:

  • I don’t know but will find out and let you know.
  • I don’t know and won’t know before you or before X date.
  • I do know but can’t share now.
  • I keep thinking that I have answered that so help me understand more about your question.

Deliver Bad News Yourself. When you screw up (and we all do at some point), say so fast. Mistakes or bad news will get out. The only question is: who will be sharing it and will they have the complete or accurate version to share?

Talk Face-to-Face. Email is fast, but never effective for sharing dramatic information. Face-to-face conversations are best for sensitive matters or topics that should be discussed versus announced. Face-to-face conversations convey that you respect the individual enough to take the time to meet with them. These conversations are also richer because they include the nuances that facial expressions and body language add to verbal communication. Just make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to really discuss, learn, listen and observe other people’s reactions, responses and concerns. Otherwise many of the benefits of live interaction are lost.

Charles Dickens gets the “wisdom before his time” award for saying, upon the birth of the telegraph: “Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.”

The Bottom Line: Communicating effectively has never been more important than in today’s information-rich, fast-paced, highly competitive workplace. For tough messages, early is better than late; simple is better than complicated; dialogue is better than lecture; and face-to-face is better than electronic. Deal with your emotion and theirs, and keep your focus on the essential message to achieve understanding and acceptance, if not agreement. AND follow-up to ensure that your message drove the desired shift!

Some Specific DO’s and Don’ts

Don’t Say…

As I’ve said many times before, you have to change your communication approach.

There are a lot of complicated things going on and while I can’t share very much, some changes are coming soon to our department.

I heard that you are unhappy with the presentation I gave last month. I wish you and I had spoken directly about it before I gave it. But in any case, what do you want me to do differently for next month’s meeting?

Do Say…

I want to talk with you again about how very important it is to your success that you improve elements of your communication approach.

As you all know very well, I don’t know everything about everything. But here’s what I do know: all businesses have to keep ensuring that they are containing containable costs during this economy. We share that responsibility in this department. To that end, I will be leading us through some changes ….

I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly about the presentation I gave last month and how I can do a better job aligning with you and others before next month’s meeting.

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Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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