This is the fifth in a series of 12 articles on leadership issues and the characteristics of successful leaders. Join us on a journey and become a more fearless leader. (To start at the beginning of the series, click here.)
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw
Who doesn’t want amazing teamwork that skillfully manages your conversations (including email and texts) to build trust, deepen commitment, and encourage loyalty?
Consistent actions, good communication, and strong emotional intelligence are integral for developing your leadership muscles. In this article we focus on two vital skills for every leader: communication and listening.
Clear communication is efficient and makes successful outcomes more likely. Negotiations can flourish or fall short based on how you communicate. There’s a lot riding on your communication skills to solve problems, clarify goals, and evaluate opportunities that lead to the right results for your team and organization.
When communication is done well, there is no ambiguity; people know what’s going on and where they stand.
Your life—and your leadership—succeeds or fails based on your meaningful interactions with others.
The quality of your conversations changes everything.
Exceptional Communication is The Heart of Leadership
Leadership creates many opportunities to get communication right—or to get it wrong:
- One-on-one conversations
- Feedback discussions
- Leading meetings
- Facilitating conversations to move toward results
- Flexibly choosing the right communication style for the person and the situation
- Mastering messaging to others in the organization
- Building strong working relationships up, down, across, and outside your organization
One of my favorite movies of all time is Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman. He plays a rebel without a cause, a man who charms everyone with his smile and amazing blue eyes. After knocking the heads off parking meters, he ends up in a Florida prison farm, where he makes several attempts to escape. After one of his captures, the Captain (Strother Martin) says:
“What we have here is a failure to communicate!”
In our lives we’ve likely had many communication fails: mixed messages, unspoken needs or desires, inability to deal with confrontation, saying yes when we mean no.
We’ve had times when we don’t get what we want because we haven’t expressed ourselves clearly, or we’ve misinterpreted others’ communication. Sometimes we simply did not listen.
Improving your listening and communication skills is akin to developing athletic skills.
You push through pain and discomfort to discover your strengths. Exercise your ability to ask open-ended questions that encourage others to provide their reasoning, to broaden your understanding.
Rehearse listening to learn, without judgment or commentary.
No doubt you have had thousands of conversations during your lifetime. Think of conversations that had an important impact on your life, good or bad. Did they leave you feeling inspired or confused? Challenged? Do you wish you had said something more meaningful, or addressed the real issues at hand? Did you shy away from appearing confrontational?
To encourage an environment of curiosity and openness in your team, you can model actively looking for different perspectives among team members.
Don’t just stick with “what is” and feeling apprehensive about change (see article 2), make it a practice to be receptive to different viewpoints and new ideas.
Practicing these skills may feel uncomfortable and initially unnatural, but the discomfort is well worth strengthening your leadership muscles and your organization.
Listen Deeply If You Want to Understand – and Be Understood
Counterintuitive though it may be, to communicate effectively, you must first be a strong listener
I often begin presentations by saying, “What you’re about to learn you may have heard before; but this time, maybe you’ll actually listen to what’s being said.”
Rather than berating the audience, I am pointing out that we frequently miss the point of the message because of the noise in our heads. We may hear but not really listen.
Listening is THE most important aspect of communication.
Frequently, your brain is making more noise than the sound coming through your ears. You’re often too distracted, busy with our thoughts, or time-stressed to pay full attention to the person in front of you.
Multitasking is distracted listening. If you are giving instructions, divided attention can lead to muddled communication and frustration. Lack of clarity can produce disastrous results.
Everyone needs to be seen and heard to feel valued. Great listening skills builds trust and relationships (see article 4) and foster insight.
We frequently don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply
Genuine listening requires being present with the other person and giving your full attention to what they are saying. Listening to understand. Listening to know how to respond. Listening in order to give proper feedback.
What Are You Really Saying?
Listening is actually about others. It’s about giving people attention, respecting their time, and clearing our heads of our own agendas. People look for cues that you’re listening to what they’re saying: body language, leaning in, making eye contact, nodding. Not interrupting. Listening for what’s being said rather than what you think you want to hear.
Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment. –Benjamin Franklin
Being open and curious is critical to listening and understanding others. Admitting—to yourself and to others—that there are more things you don’t know than what you do know is a major first step.
You don’t have all the answers. Open-ended questions allow you to explore others’ reasoning and thought processes and then share your own, which can lead to fresh, collaborative perspectives and ideas.
Sometimes people are oblivious to their effect on others. They may blindly insert themselves into conversations, interrupt or speak over others. They refuse to listen, take selfish actions, or give the impression they don’t care how others feel. I’m sure you’ve witnessed people who lead with an authority that alienates rather than collaborates. Listening well ensures that you are not that person.
Listen With Empathy to Build a High-Trust, Responsive Team
There are four levels of listening to consider:
We’re egocentric, concerned with our own thoughts and the need to express them. We hear what the other person is saying but don’t really listen. We are planning how to respond or are anxious for our side of the story to be heard. We interrupt the other’s thinking to express our ideas or we oppose their ideas without waiting for them to finish. Conversations become a ping-pong match of one-upmanship. This is not true listening.
We focus on what someone is saying and demonstrate support. We lean in, make eye contact, smile and nod, murmur agreement. The conversation is warm and inviting. We allow the person to finish speaking and assure them we’ve heard by paraphrasing some of the conversation and asking for confirmation that we fully understood. This is active listening.
We can go further. In level three listening, we show empathy for the other person to let them know we’re truly listening and we care. We share stories that support the conversation. We demonstrate mutual understanding, which builds trust. This empathy helps people feel they belong, one of the three fundamental human needs.
At level four, listening becomes an art form.
- We listen to what’s not being said.
- We listen to the tone of voice.
- We listen for gaps in what’s said, and explore what’s behind their words with curiosity.
- We ask open-ended questions to drive the conversation to a deeper level.
This kind of listening is collaborative and intuitive.
We get a feel for what’s going on and test it by asking questions. We express empathy and consider the other person’s perspectives. We validate the other’s thought processes and actively involve them in decision making.
I built my reputation as a coach on listening well. I develop trust with clients by giving them my whole attention. I demonstrate understanding of their challenges by sharing my own stories and offering anecdotal advice to move forward. So my clients feel not only seen and heard, but understood. When your team builds that kind of listening and communicative trust, possibilities abound and great things can happen!
How Do You Know If You Have Empathy?
When you listen to an exquisite piece of music or read a scene in a book where the character overcomes something, you feel it. When a colleague shares their struggles, you know how they feel, perhaps because you’ve been there. That’s empathy.
According to author and professor Richard Boyatzis, the underlying intent of empathy is wanting to understand another person.
The main mechanism for empathy is open and engaged listening.
Empathy is essential in the workplace and above all, from leaders. Empathy creates regard and helps build trusting relationships. [callout] When empathy is missing, individuals may isolate, and their perspectives go unheard in strategizing and important conversations.
Empathy often seems absent in our divisive age. We live in a time when “the other” is demonized. We’ve become numb to the tragedies that surround us because they’re so numerous. We hide behind our screens with texting and social media. Holding yourself apart, declining to engage, or being indifferent to the needs of others provokes a lack of connection. Actively practicing empathy rebuilds connection and relationships.
Remarkable Leaders Practice Curiosity To Connect Authentically
Let’s start with a deceptively simple idea:
Being curious. You may not understand others’ cultures or the reasons they do what they do, but you want to understand. Show your curiosity by asking questions. This demonstrates genuine interest in learning about the other person, their ideas, the way they think and what they think. There are few things as gratifying as true regard.
Taking the time to connect with people lies at the heart of your role as a leader. Everyone benefits when you give your full attention, listen, and ask questions—including you!
Gather information about what your team members like, what they believe in, and how their work environment impacts them. Watch for nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. (You can tell a lot just from seeing how people carry themselves!) Make eye contact and listen to understand.
It bears repeating: Empathy is a leadership muscle we must constantly train. Consciously practicing empathy fosters stronger collaboration and innovation in our teams.
What naturally elicits your kindness, concern, and compassion with family and friends? Try transferring that level of interest and engagement to your team members.
You can develop your leadership communication muscles daily by questioning yourself:
- Do I listen to fully understand, rather than to make my point?
- How well do I express empathy and compassion in conversations? How could I do better?
- Did I respond from a place of knowledge and understanding, or from assumptions and judgment?
- Am I embracing new ways of working, listening, sharing and understanding?
- What will I practice today in order to become a better listener and communicator?
In your leadership role, you have the awesome responsibility—and opportunity!—to model integrity and open communication with your team members. Your actions lay the foundation for a safe and inclusive environment where all contribute and know their voices are heard.
What will you do with your communication powers?
Jacqueline Wales is a motivational speaker, coach, and the author of The Fearless Factor @ Work, The Fearless Factor and other books. She believes in the power of fearlessness for creating the career and life you want.
I’d love to hear your comments and am happy to answer your questions!