Communicating as a Leader

Better Communication Skills — for Better Leaders

Tom O\’Dea asked:



The challenge of better communication skills has spawned books, seminars and many a consulting company.   How can it be addressed in a short article like this?


Treat this, and other articles like it, as a tip.  This is a brief education in a couple of important aspects of effective communications.  No theory here; this is real observation and advice.  Put it to use, and you’ll be a more effective leader.


The Communications Mystique


“What we have here is a failure to communicate”.  Are you old enough, like me, to remember that line from the movie Cool Hand Luke?  Even if you’re not, you’ve heard some version of that line if you’ve been in business.


Hardly any missed milestone, production problem, or customer service failure hasn’t been at least partly explained as a communications problem. 


What’s so difficult about communications?


Nothing, really.  Whether it’s one to one, one to many or many to many, communication is nothing more than conversation.  Somebody’s speaking, and somebody’s listening (hopefully). 


Gaining better communication skills involves developing the ability to observe the conversations taking place, and make adjustments so that the speaking and the listening are both being done effectively.  That doesn’t sound so tough, does it?  Well, it’s a little harder when you’re observing your own conversations.  But it’s still possible!


The First Secret to Better Communication Skills


Have the conversation!  It’s amazing how often the “failure to communicate” is just that — a failure to even hold an important conversation.  Leaders assume people know what needs to be done.  People assume leaders understand the obstacles they face.


Or if assumptions aren’t getting in the way, sometimes the problem is reluctance.  After all, some conversations are tough to have.  It’s not easy to tell someone that you disagree with them.  Worse yet, maybe you’re angry with them because you feel they’ve let you down failed to live up to an agreement.


If you’re the leader, your team may be reluctant to bring you bad news.  They may be very reluctant to disagree with you or challenge your position.  After all, career suicide is not usually on the path to success and happiness.


 The Leader’s Role in Fostering Better Communication Skills


Make it safe.  Encourage people to bring you bad news, and to challenge you.  Let the organization know when it’s done and done well.  Acknowledge the people who stepped up and took the risk.  Do this even if you disagree with their points.  In fact, do this especially when you disagree with their points.


If people see that they can make an argument and be appreciated for it, even when they don’t win the argument, the level of dialogue will step up.  You as a leader have become a better communicator by exhibiting the behaviors that reward just holding  the important conversations.


The Next Level of Better Communication Skills – Observe


Look around the organization.  Pay attention to the dialogue.  You’re looking for one of three things:


Silence — People withdrawing and not contributing to the conversation.  Some are shy and need their confidence built.  Some are avoiding conflict and need to know it’s ok. All need to understand that they’re on the team because they bring needed talents.  And their talents need to be part of the dialogue.


Violence — People dominating the conversation and not allowing others’ views to be heard or considered.  Counsel these people.  Help them understand that dialogue is not a contest to see who wins.  It’s a process to get out as much relevant information as possible.  This is especially important because when you have people who are prone to go silent, someone who dominates or goes violent makes it easy for the others to hide.


Real Dialogue — The free flow of ideas, effective debate and discussion, and ultimately a team that stakes out a position and where the members support one another.  It sounds ideal and not everyone gets there, but work at it by creating an environment that’s safe for dialogue, and you’ll be amazed at the results.


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