Over the past few weeks, I've read nearly a dozen books on leadership, communication and change as I prepare to lead two new workshops. My creative process seems to demand that I read up on the subject, just to make sure I haven't missed some new and breathtaking idea that will render my current knowledge obsolete. Though I discovered nothing that will rearrange life as I know it, I did spot a pattern that seems to lead to success.
A few key behaviours seem to improve our communication as leaders, as change agents and as human beings.
Every expert author's system is different, yet these actions are common to them all. There's no guarantee of success; however, attention to these key areas will pay off in a more focused and effective two-way communication. The practices work best face-to-face, the communication channel for which humans are designed. Still, the same principles apply if you're using phone, e-mail, online chat or tapping out text messages on your mobile.
Effective Practice #1 - Use your whole brain
When we're dealing with human beings, the feeling brain (theirs and ours) is as likely to be working as the thinking brain. In our left-brained business world, we often forget that particular fact of life. We use logic, alone, to try to inspire others to behave in a certain way. We think: It's so obvious; why don't they get it? But do we always get it, ourselves? How many of us know we need to eat better or exercise more and still don't do it? Intellectually, we understand the risks and benefits, yet something stands between us and trying something new. Neuroscientists suggest that the instinctive part of the human brain - the part that, when stressed, will shut down all the other parts and take control - interprets change as danger. That's why we humans resist change, even when we know it's necessary.
So what does this mean for us, as communicators? We need to look for the sometimes hidden feelings that change introduces. We need to create a situation where it's safe for people to identify and talk about feelings. If people are mad, glad, sad or scared their brains aren't effectively processing information, no matter how nicely we've presented it. Feelings trump facts, so we need to address them early and often.
Effective Practice #2 - Ask and listen
The more I explore, the more I'm convinced that the essence of communication is the question. Asking people what they think and how they feel does more than provide us with information. It begins a relationship in which people feel valued and understood. Questions asking "How?" and "What?" and "Could you say more about that?" invite people to share their ideas and experiences - as long as they sense that you're really listening and not just giving them airtime while you rehearse your next statement.
True listening is, perhaps, the hardest communication skill. It means shutting off our preconceived notions about the situation and hearing the other person's story. It means observing and listening for the messages between the words, for sometimes as much is said in the silences as in the sentences. And it means we stop thinking about ourselves and the impression we're making and focus on the other person, which, perhaps paradoxically, makes a better impression.
Effective Practice #3 - Address their concerns
Once we know what's in people's hearts and minds, we can address their concerns with facts, stories and information about how the situation relates to them. When we adjust our message to reflect what the audience thinks is important - rather than just what we want them to know - we are more likely to be heard and understood.
Involve people in developing the plans, wherever possible. In articles about top employers and top performing companies, employee involvement frequently shows up as a success factor. Letting people have a say in issues that affect them raises the likelihood that they will support the changes.
Effective Practice #4 - Confirm your understanding
One of the most useful communication skills is to recap what you understood from the conversation. I start with a phrase like, "Let me make sure I understand," then repeat the gist of the conversation, their expressed concerns and what we agreed on. This often brings more issues to the surface. I've learned, in coaching, that people sometimes say the most important thing at the end of the conversation. Sometimes it's almost a "throwaway" comment, yet if you ask about it, it can reveal the real issues or lead to a great solution.
Effective Practice #5 - Repeat Effective Practices 1-4 as often as you can
One of the reasons communications confuse and even backfire is that we think the job is done when we've made our point. We mustn't declare completion too soon. Communication isn't a one time thing. Many people think that once they've issued the statement, sent the e-mail, made the speech or publicized the decision, the communication is done. Not so. We need to pay attention to reaction, see how the message lands, observe how people are doing. Keep asking, listening and confirming.
Those are the skills I'll be practising in 2008. Simple steps that can make me a better communicator and a better leader. What about you? Are you willing to give it a try?