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Better Communication Skills — Silence and Violence

in Communicating as a Leader

Tom O\’Dea asked:

Introduction

Leaders need to seek better communication skills not only for themselves and their leadership teams, but as part of the organization’s culture.  Successful change management requires getting everyone moving in one new direction.   

People will be talking with one another while you’re trying to drive change.  As a leader, you want to make sure those conversations are out in the open so that objections can be addressed and people will grow confident in your leadership. 

Better Communication Skills at the Organization Level 

What do we mean when we talk about the communication skills of an organization?  At the individual level, we know how to describe communication skills.  We talk about someone’s style, their subject matter knowledge, their ability to adapt their message to their target audience, their preparation, etc. 

In an organization, better communication skills are something we seek to build in the culture.  To be specific, we’re seeking to create a cultural norm of frequent, open dialogue.  When that’s the norm, people feel safe in raising concerns and objections, knowing that they will be heard.  

They also recognize that they are obligated to participate in dialogue, whether in meetings or less formally among their peers.  It’s part of their job, making sure they are contributing not only their labor but their expertise, insight and ideas whenever possible. 

Leaders need to look out for the two biggest barriers to better communication skills in an organization: silence and violence. 

Recognizing Silence 

Very simply, silence means people are not participating in the dialogue.  Said another way, important conversations are not happening because people are choosing not to engage in them. 

Why is silence a problem? 

Hopefully you’ve hired smart people.  It only makes sense, then, that you want and need the insights of those smart people when you’re leading a change program.  Smart people always have thoughts and opinions.  When they go silent, you lose the benefit of knowing those thoughts and opinions. 

Besides not having the input, when people are silent you don’t know where they stand.  Do they understand what you are trying to accomplish?  Are they committed to working with you and your team, or do they have reservations?  Without clear understanding and commitment, how will you bring these people along with you? 

Addressing Silence 

First and foremost, make sure you’ve created an environment where it’s safe to speak out.  Many people who turn to silence do so because they feel they may be ignored or worse yet criticized for speaking up.   

Examine your behavior — what do you do when you are challenged?  Do you fight back right away?  Or do you give considered answers and act respectful when you disagree with the challenger?  Check the same behaviors in your leadership team, and within the organization in general.  You’ve got to make it safe for people to engage.  Your behavior will set the tone. 

If you’re sure it’s safe and you see individuals are still reluctant to add their input to the dialogue of the organization, coach them individually.  Let them know how much their input is valued and needed, and thank them when they open up. 

Recognizing Violence 

In this context, violence can be described as the tendency of one or a few individuals to dominate conversations.  When there is violence, there is no chance for open dialogue.  The dominators, if there are more than one, may argue their points without effectively listening to one another.  And those who are not dominating the conversation will end up going silent, out of frustration or boredom. 

So in the end, violence begets silence.  How do you address violence? 

As a leader, maintain your own objectivity.  You’re a participant in the conversations taking place, but you must also be an observer.  Learn to step out of the discussion from time to time and assess what’s happening.  If you observe individuals dominating to the point where others are checking out, you need to intervene. 

The degree of intervention depends on just how “violent” the dialogue is getting.  It can be as simple as reminding someone to ease up a little and open themselves up to push back from others.  Or it can go all the way to having to call a time out and taking people aside to help them see that their passion is overwhelming others and suppressing good dialogue. 

The Result of Silence and Violence 

One of two things is going to happen when you don’t have open dialogue in which everyone is actively engaged.

You’ll stall. Some strong people will argue and debate ad infinitum, while others check out.  And your change strategy goes no where.

You’ll move forward.  Not everyone will be participating, but strong people will drive and dominate the dialogue and the resulting actions. 

 

Stalling will be very clear to you, and you’ll need to intervene to create safety, get people engaged, help break logjams, etc. 

Moving forward might not seem so bad, but beware.  Depending on just how many people have gone silent, there may be a time bomb in your implementation plan.  When things go wrong, as they do in any change initiative, there will be a number of people who will have effectively positioned themselves to wash their hands of all responsibility.   

As we noted earlier, just because they go silent doesn’t mean they don’t have input and opinions.  When the plan goes forward and they’ve been shouted down, or chose not to engage because they felt it wasn’t safe, they will be in a position to say “that wasn’t my idea”.   

Even though such behavior should be unacceptable, it happens way too often.  Prevent it by setting expectations around organizational communication, specifically creating a shared value for open, honest dialogue without repercussion or disrespect.

 

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