You cannot become a great professional or leader without being a great communicator. We were trained in the classroom to focus on grammar, vocabulary, enunciation, delivery, etc. In other words, we were taught to focus on ourselves versus to focus on others.
It comes as no great surprise that most leaders spend the majority of their time in some type of an interpersonal situation. It’s also no great shock that a large number of organizational problems occur as a result of poor communications. Effective communication is an essential component of professional success whether it is at the interpersonal, intergroup, intra-group, organizational, or external level.
Skills acquired and/or knowledge gained are only valuable to the extent they can be practically applied. The number one thing great communicators have in common is they possess a heightened sense of situational and contextual awareness. The best communicators are great listeners and astute in their observations. Great communicators are skilled at reading a person/group by sensing the moods, dynamics, attitudes, values and concerns of those being communicated with. Not only do they read the environment well, they possess the uncanny ability to adapt their messaging to the situation without missing a beat. The message is not about the messenger; it has nothing to do with the messenger; it is however 100% about meeting the needs and the expectations of those you’re communicating with.
Trust: People don’t open up to those they don’t trust. When people have a sense a person is worthy of their trust, they will invest time and take risks in ways they would not if that person or leader had a reputation built upon poor character, a lack of integrity, or has not demonstrated the ability to be trusted. While you can demand trust, it doesn’t work. Trust is created by earning it. Earn it by demonstrating the appropriate act, thinking, and decision making. Keep in mind that people will forgive many things where trust exists, but will rarely forgive where trust is absent.
Care: There is great truth in: “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Traditional business theory tells us to stay at “arms length”. Stay at arms length if you want to remain in the dark receiving only highly sanitized versions of the truth. If you don’t develop meaningful relationships with people you’ll never know what’s really on their mind until it’s too late to do anything about it.
Listen:Great leaders know when to dial it up, dial it down, and dial it off, mostly down and off. Constantly repeating your message will not have the same result as engaging in meaningful conversation. The greatest form of communication takes place within two-way conversation, not through a lecture or monologue. When you begin to understand that knowledge is not gained by moving your lips, but by removing your ear wax, you have taken the first step to becoming a skilled communicator.
Get Specific: Specificity is better than ambiguity. Learn to communicate with clarity. Simple and concise is always better than complicated and confusing. Time has never been a more precious commodity. It is critical you know how to cut to the chase and hit the high points, and that you expect the same from others. Understand the value of brevity and clarity or people will tune you out long before you get there.
Know Your Stuff: Develop a command over your subject matter. If you don’t possess subject matter expertise, few people will give you the time of day. Most successful people have little interest in listening to those individuals who cannot add value to a situation or topic, but force themselves into a conversation just to hear themselves speak. The “fake it until you make it” days have long since passed, and fast and slick equals not credible. “It’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters,” and while there is an element of truth to this, it matters very much what you say. Good communicators address both the “what” and “how” aspects of messaging so they don’t fall prey to becoming the smooth talker who leaves people with the impression of form over substance. Prepare, prepare and prepare for your communications. Rarely react. Pause, anticipate, reflect then respond or communicate.
Be Open-Minded: The rigidness of a closed mind is the single greatest limiting factor of new opportunities. A person takes their game to a whole new level when they seek out those who hold different opinions and opposing positions with the goal to not change their minds, but to understand what’s on their mind. Don’t be fearful of opposing views, be genuinely curious and interested. Create dialog with those who confront, challenge, and stretch you. Be willing to listen, discuss and learn with an open mind.
Read: Take a moment and reflect back on any great leader that comes to mind, you’ll find they are very adept at reading between the lines. They have the uncanny ability to understand what is not said, witnessed, or heard. Being a leader should not be viewed as a license to increase the volume of rhetoric. In this age of instant communication, everyone seems to be in such a rush to communicate what’s on their mind that we fail to realize what can be gained from the minds of others. Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, and you’ll be amazed at how your level or organizational awareness is raised.
Email versus Phone Call or In-Person: Biggest issue in the workplace today. How people communicate through email versus picking up the phone or walking into someone’s office/cube. Email is effective for stating facts and providing information and updates. When email is used to debate, provide opinion or feedback, or to try to influence or persuade, many bad things happen. People begin to misunderstand, sensitivities are raised, escalation between parties intensifies, many people get copied and sucked in, etc. Much time, energy and stress are wasted in the ineffective use of email. When in doubt of how your audience may interpret or understand your intent, pick up the phone or visit them.
Focus on Leave-Behinds not Take-Aways: The best communicators are not only skilled at learning and gathering information while communicating, they are also adept at transferring ideas, aligning expectations, inspiring action, and spreading their vision. The key is to approach each interaction with a servant’s heart. When you truly focus on contributing more than receiving you will have accomplished the goal. Even though this may seem counter-intuitive, by intensely focusing on the other party’s wants, needs and desires, you’ll learn far more than you ever would by focusing on your agenda.
Replace Ego with Empathy: When candor is communicated with empathy & caring, not with arrogance, overstated pride or an inflated ego, good things begin to happen. Be authentic, transparent and true to yourself and others. Be humble, accept yourself and others. Anger turns into respect, and doubt into trust.
Speak to Groups as Individuals: We don’t always have the luxury of speaking to individuals in an intimate setting. Great communicators can tailor a message to speak with 10 people in a conference room or 10,000 people in an auditorium, and have them feel as if they were speaking directly to each one of them as an individual. Knowing how to work a room and establish credibility, trust, and rapport are keys to successful interactions.
Change Message if Necessary: How to prevent a message from going bad, and what to do when it does. Be prepared and develop a contingency plan. Keep in mind that for successful interactions to occur, your objective must be in alignment with those you are communicating with. If your expertise, empathy, clarity, etc. don’t have the desired effect, you need to be able to make an impact by changing on the fly. Use great questions, humor, stories, analogies, relevant data, and where needed, bold statements, to develop the confidence and trust needed for people to want to engage. While it is sometimes necessary this tactic should be reserved as a last resort.
Don’t assume someone is ready to have a particular conversation with you just because you’re ready to have the conversation with them. Spending time paving the way for a productive conversation is far better than coming off as a bull in a china shop. Don’t assume anyone knows where you’re coming from if you don’t tell them. If you fail to justify your message with knowledge, business logic, reason, empathy etc., you will find that the message will fall on deaf ears needing reinforcement or clarification afterward.
When you have a message to communicate make sure the message is true, correct, well reasoned, and validated by solid business logic that is specific, consistent, clear and accurate. Spending a little extra time on the front-end will likely save you from considerable aggravation and damage control on the back-end. Communication is not about you, your opinions, your positions or your circumstances. It’s about helping others by meeting their needs, understanding their concerns, and adding value to their world.