Communication is key in change initiatives. So, it’s no surprise that when I’m brought in to get a change programme back on track, that communication is almost always cited as a key issue.
I’ve worked for a number of inspiring leaders in the past, who want to be agile and want to do the right thing for their organisation, but with all the complexities in their organisation and pressures of the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, little headway is made with improving communication, let alone engagement or participation!
So, what is the root cause of this poor communication? Often, in these well-meaning programmes, it is trying to do too much. But rather than provide an overly simplistic answer – “do less” – I invite leaders to do different, and learn from that experience.
Breaking Bad … Habits that Harm
What would you do if you were blindfolded and asked to solve a problem? In the first instance you may be hit by fear or concern over not having sight, a key sense and one that, in a work environment, can make people feel safe and self-assured. But as that fear subsides, you’d be surprised to find that you improve the quality of your listening, and subsequently your communication.
Many of us have built up some unhelpful and counterproductive habits of communication. Have you ever seen someone formulate a response to what you’re saying before you’ve even finished? Do some people dominate meetings or cut over people, while others seem to say nothing at all? Although on the surface a meeting is occurring externally between all the people involved, there is in fact an inner dialogue running through all of us that can often sabotage the proceedings. By eliminating one of the senses we strongly rely on, it develops another – in this case hearing. More importantly though, by attuning ones hearing it allows for a greater capacity to listen more deeply.
As you listen more deeply to what someone is saying – not just to the words, but to the point – you may find yourself building on their points, co-creating a narrative together; instead of taking the conversation in a direction you desire based on only half of the information being heard.
Shaking Off The Blame Culture in Communication
Of course, blindfolding people – while a memorable exercise I do recommend for leaders to experiment with their team in the next team meeting – isn’t the only answer.
I tend to smile knowingly whenever I hear communication being proposed as a key issue to “why things aren’t working out around here”. I smile because people rarely realise that if communication is an issue, like it or not, they are part of the issue too. In every communication there are two ends of the connection: the transmitter and the receiver. But instead of focusing on the part of the communications they have total control of, I find people instead want to change the other side of the connection. And it’s their turn to smile knowingly or perhaps laugh out loud when I ask them “how’s that working out for you by the way?”
Practising The Art Of Communication
So, what are our choices when we are faced with poor communication? For me there is only one answer, and it takes true leadership: change! But change what, specifically?
The main change that I suggest is to slow down. Something the blindfold exercise subtly achieves.
Take time as the receiver of a message to listen and understand. However long you usually take – double it. Then, a tricky part for some people: check your understanding. This is hugely important, because if you can successfully repeat back what you have understood to somebody, herein lies an opportunity to reduce missed deadlines, unsatisfied customers, confused employees and so on. Imagine the impact this can have, if at the start of the project all teams checked their understanding with all other teams, and took the time to get it right before going ahead and “getting it done”.
What if, like for most leaders, you’re often the broadcaster of the most important messages? It’s the same solution: check! Genuine leaders are those that ensure their message is not only received, but understood. They ask themselves “What would I expect the receiver of the message to now do as a result of having listened and understood – was my invitation to act clear?” Leaders who take the time to ensure that their message is understood go to greater lengths to ensure that this is the case and as a result tend to stand out more than their contemporaries.
Conclusion – Become a Truly Communicative Leader
To some people, these extra small steps in the communication process seem laborious and contrived, making conversation seem more stilted and unnatural. But I ask you – what is the alternative? Is it not better to do different and engage in some new habits of communication that result in improved engagement and participation?
This whole article may seem a little unfair because I know that you, the reader who has advanced this far in the article, want to improve your communication; but there’s many people out there who are lazy communicators. They may become impatient when having to think more carefully or deliberately, or have to perhaps listen more. They perceive the extra work as tiresome because they feel that others should just “get it” and if they don’t, they project negative traits onto others, the most common being the very lazy throwaway “well maybe they are too stupid to get it”. In my book, these people are poor leaders.
But … while it’s frustrating to see others communicating or listening poorly, as a genuine leader yourself, you can not only improve your own communication; but this simple process can help improve others’ communication at the same time. And for leaders, isn’t that the best way to lead?