3 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Communication Skills

By Nick Morgan

Leadership communication always needs to be a two-way activity. Leaders, to be blunt, need followers, and a smart leader wants to know what those followers are thinking and doing. Moreover, leaders are in the business of persuasion, and you need to be listening to the people being persuaded or you won’t know how you’re doing.

There’s an even deeper reason that you need to be in the listening business as a leader. I believe that it’s the responsibility of a leader to return the courtesy of your followers by making an equivalent effort to listen as hard to them as they do to you. It’s courteous and it’s right — and it’s necessary in the long run if you’re going to fulfill the leader’s full set of obligations.

Good listening, then, is a profound activity. People need to be heard to be validated as human. We’re a social species.

Increasingly, though, listening is a forgotten skill.  No wonder — we’re constantly awash in information. Why should we voluntarily listen any more? There’s simply too much to take in. And yet, listening to the people close to you — your team, your company, your sphere of influence — is more important than ever. Here’s how to do it well.

Feedback

At its most basic, listening offers feedback. Feedback, which is often critical, is simply a response, usually involving evaluation of some kind.  Many leaders, in fact, consider (critical) feedback the beginning and end of their job communicating to their followers. I worked with one CEO who believed that it was enough to tell his executive team when they had screwed up. “They have a job to do; they’re paid a salary. Why should I praise them?”

I finally persuaded him to broaden his communications palate for the purely transactional reason that it would get him better results. He was dragged kicking and screaming into a more enlightened version of communication, but he wasn’t thrilled about it. It seemed like work to him.

Nonetheless feedback both good and critical is an essential part of listening. Here’s how to do it without destroying the ego of the receiver and ultimately the relationship.

Begin by describing the actions of the person to whom you’re giving feedback: “You completed the task on Tuesday.” If your purpose is critical, relate the action to the standard: “It was due on Monday.” Then describe the consequences of the behavior, and the reasons for them: “Being a day late leads to bottlenecks at the plant and will cost us forty-five thousand dollars each time. We can’t afford that kind of cost and stay in business.”

Then make your request: “I need you to complete the task on time in the future.” Finally, check for comprehension and agreement:  “Do you understand? Can you commit to getting the task completed by Monday from now on?”

The key is to avoid all the tempting analyses and speculations on the motivation of the receiver. “You always turn your project in late! Are you deliberately trying to sabotage us? Do you want to screw us? Are you trying to bring the organization down? Are you drinking again?”

These sorts of communications, satisfying as they may be, crowd the channel with emotional baggage that ultimately gets in the way of persuasion. It’s difficult, but don’t tell the person that he or she is bad. Instead, stick to the facts and the consequences.

So it‘s possible to give feedback well, both the good and bad variety. But if you want your audience to feel that it has been heard, feedback isn’t really enough. Too often, it feels punitive, despite your best efforts, and it certainly feels like it’s judgmental.

To up the ante on good listening, here are a couple of other ways to listen that will let your audience know that it has truly been heard.

Paraphrasing

To go a little further as a good listener, try paraphrasing what your audience is saying. This activity is surprisingly difficult for the poor listeners of the world. For the rest of us, it’s easy enough if we can swallow the temptation to give our own opinions. Paraphrasing means simply saying something like, “So let me be sure I’ve understood. What you’re saying is that the green ones are tastier than the brown ones?”

The point is to play back, like a recorder, what the person has said to you. That’s all. Resist the temptation to embroider (“But that’s ridiculous! That can’t be true!”); that will undo all the good work of the paraphrase.

Paraphrasing is a powerful technique because it gets your receiver agreeing with you. He or she nods and says, “Yes, that’s correct. That’s what I said.” From that simple agreement, you can build a persuasive relationship because you’ve begun to create trust and liking. It’s impossible to hate or distrust completely someone whom you’ve just agreed with, especially in the act of replaying your wise words back to you.

Active Listening

Finally, let’s take the listening game higher. The most powerful form of listening — the one that people most strongly react to, feeling that they are both heard and understood — is a form of empathic listening where you identify the emotion and state its underlying causes without trying to solve the problem: “So, Bill, what I hear you saying is that you’re angry with me because I haven’t fully appreciated the lengths you’ve gone to in trying to win over our Latin American customers. Those efforts have caused you a lot of sleepless nights, time away from the family, and marital problems. Is that right?”

Don’t try to solve the problem at this stage. Just acknowledge it fully, and you will be surprised at how powerful that acknowledgment is for the other person. The key elements are the correct identification of the emotion; the reasons for it, including your own personal responsibility, if any; and a full statement of the facts of the situation if those haven’t been brought up openly before.

This form of active listening — active because you’re acknowledging your own role in the situation — is the hardest to undertake. In a contentious situation, it can feel as if you’re giving in to openly express how the other is feeling. But you’re not; you’re just stating the other’s position as fully and honestly as you can. Agreement, compromise, or resolution will come later. For now, active listening is a powerful first step toward solving any serious problem in a communication.

What you will find is that if you’ve done it well, people will agree profoundly and powerfully with you. Of course, to accomplish this form of listening effectively, you must be good at reading the emotions of others, and those come chiefly from the nonverbal conversation. What you’re doing is translating the nonverbal into the verbal, and that is an important skill for any leader to employ with wishes to have a full set of tools for persuasive communications.

About the Author:

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication, and the good and bad speakers of the day. His passion is to connect the latest brain research with timeless insights into persuasive speaking in order to further our understanding of how people connect with one another. For more information on his company, visit www.publicwords.com

Are You a Communicator or a Public Speaker?

By Nancy Duarte

It’s rare for me to read a book on presentations and learn something but I did in the book, Habitudes for Communicators: The Art of Engaging Communication from Tim Elmore. Elmore uses sticky metaphors that help you remember his concepts. His chapter heads are metaphorical like “Windows and Mirrors”, “the Faded Flag” and “The Thomas Nast Principle.”

He has great insights throughout the book. For example, in “Windows and Mirrors” he proposes that there’s a gap between communicators and public speakers:

A Public Speaker:                                                                                                                

1) Puts the Message Before the People

2) Asks: What Do I Have?

3) Emphasizes Techniques

4) Focus is on Content of the Words

5) Polished (Image Conscious)

6) Goal: Complete the Message

Communicator:

1) Puts the People Before the Message

2) Asks: What Do They Need?

3) Emphasizes Atmosphere

4) Focus is Change in the Listeners

5) Personal (Impact Conscious)

6) Goal: Complete the People

At the end of each chapter is a quiz, but Elmore’s also put those questions into an online assessment to rank yourself to see how you’re doing as a communicator. He asks questions like “I tend to focus on being simple more than comprehensive.” It shoots out a score when you’re done. This book is full of fresh insights that I haven’t seen in any other presentation book, so it’s worth picking up.

About the Author:

Nancy Duarte is the CEO of presentations firm Duarte Design, whose clients include many innovative Fortune 1000 companies in diverse industries. Duarte worked with Al Gore to develop the presentation that became the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and supports many conferences, including TED and PopTech. For more information about her company, visit www.duarte.com

How to Recover When You Lose Your Train of Thought

By The Speaking Sherpa

At the 2012 Toastmasters International Convention, I had the great fortune to attend Jock Elliot’s educational session. Jock, the 2011 World Champion of Public Speaking, described his 35 year competitive speaking journey masterfully weaving storytelling and presentation tips.

Perhaps the most interesting insight I gleaned came while watching Jock when he lost his train of thought. There is actually something heartening about the fact that even world champions suffer the occasional memory lapse on stage. When he realized what was happening, Jock paused and said “This next part is so important that I need to read it to you.”

He then calmly strolled back the the lectern to glance at his notes making an intentionally audible “hmmm…. yes…” as he did so. He then took back center stage and continued enthralling his audience.

Although I was very impressed by Jock’s recovery technique, I was on the fence about adopting it for myself. The issue troubling me was whether or not it had crossed the authenticity line. Everyone forgets, but you should strive to recover authentically. Surely, I was not the only one to notice it was a well-rehearsed technique.

We have all seen what not to do when speakers lose their train of thought – “I… ummm… forgot what I was about to say… ummm…” In addition to Jock’s technique, are there other ways to recover?

As fate would have it, my fellow District 53 Toastmasters and I quite randomly shared a cab to Downtown Disney with Matt Abrahams.  Without knowing who Matt was, we invited him to dinner with us. It turns out that Matt was leading an educational session the next day on how to overcome your fear of public speaking. In fact, he wrote the book on the subject – “Speaking Up Without Freaking Out.”

Based on my observation of Jock, my conversation with Matt, and excerpts from Matt’s book, here is how to recover gracefully:

Method 1:  Make It Look Planned

This is what Jock Elliot did by pausing, saying “This next part is so important that I need to read it to you,” consulting his notes, then starting up again. One key lesson here is that you should always have your notes easily accessible.  I keep mine in my pocket as a safety blanket; I rarely need them, but having them there sure makes me feel good.

Method 2: Paraphrase Your Previous Content

From Matt’s book: “You will have to excuse me, but I am so passionate about my topic that I sometimes get ahead of myself.  Allow me to review my previous point.” Nine times out of ten, retracing your steps will help you find the path forward.

Method 3: Ask Your Audience A Thought Provoking Question

Matt’s recommendation is “What seems to be the most important point so far?” I feel that this technique would work better in presentation that is highly interactive to begin with. However you can use this as a rhetorical question to either buy time with a long pause or to precede a review of your previous content (i.e. a lead-in to Method #2).

Method 4: Review Your Overall Speaking Purpose

Every speech should have a central theme – preferably encapsulated in a three to twelve word catchphrase.  Repeating your theme is always welcome by your audience so a memory lapse is a reasonable time to throw it back out there.

Try It Out!

Unfortunately, you are going to experience a memory lapse at some time. In fact, the older you get, the more frequently it is going to happen. However, fear of memory lapses should not prevent you from sharing your ideas with the world.  If Jock Elliot can lose his train of thought, then so can I. Pick one, just one, of these methods and have it in your back pocket the next time you need it.

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