“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
- Attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Communication is like exercise. We all agree it’s critically important and something we need to do more of, and yet how easy it is to leave things unsaid. As leaders, we often convince ourselves that we are communicating enough because we hear ourselves 100% of the time. But our audiences - whether our team, our Board, our customers, our business partners, etc. - only hear us occasionally. So while we may feel like we are repeating our key messages ad nauseum, our audiences have a much different experience. Consider a 2015 study on the top complaints from employees about their leaders. Of the top-9 complaints, eight result from a lack of communication. Okay then: If the pathway to being a better leader is so clear, why don’t we communicate more?
Why We Don’t Communicate
The most common communication stoppers stem from insecurity, conflict avoidance, and overestimating human capacity for retention.
What if I don’t get the words right?
An imperfectly phrased message is more helpful than silence. Language itself is a cloudy, ambiguous stew of inexact approximations of reality. We constantly mess up our messages. And yet we generally understand each other. So don’t worry about getting the words just right; just get the words out and trust the listener to meet you halfway.
What if my audience corrects or contradicts me?
You will be better for it because you’ve learned something. Of course it can be embarrassing to be wrong, but what is the alternative? You can speak up, be corrected, and exit the conversation wiser, or you can keep quiet out of fear and go on being misinformed. It’s instructive to look to children as role models for how to be curious. Children ask “Why?” with impunity. (And parents answer with exasperation.) During this phase of life, children are learning machines, soaking up all the knowledge they can glean from others. Openly acknowledging their ignorance doesn’t paralyze children because we do not stigmatize them for not knowing everything. How strange, then, that once we become adults we are made to feel embarrassed when we admit to being ignorant on a subject. Imagine how much more we could know if we unabashedly admitted what we don’t know.
Can’t I just be in my head for a while?
Of course, but try to find space in your schedule for silent contemplation. When you’re out and about, stay present and aware of the communication needs of others. Being distant and silent is a statement, one that offers the recipient virtually no cues to help them interpret what you are thinking, feeling, or planning to do. I recall a coworker telling me about an encounter with our CEO in the restroom. The CEO passed him without saying hello. The poor guy was convinced the silence meant that he had no organizational value, that the CEO didn’t like him, and that he would be fired. In reality, I told him, the CEO was probably in a Board-induced fog after hours and hours of meetings. This incident illustrates how inadvertently powerful silence can be, especially when it comes from an authority figure.
What if the person gets upset?
This happens far less frequently in reality than in our fears, but when it does happen, try to understand why the person is upset. Once you understand the cause, there’s a good chance you will discover that it is something you can address.
I’m sure the other person will figure it out on their own.
Imagine an aerospace engineer seeing an assembler deliberating over a delicate fitting, but remaining silent, thinking “I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” How reckless. Imagine seeing someone struggling to push a stroller through a narrow doorway and walking by without stopping to help. “I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” How unkind. Good communication is taking the initiative when we see someone struggling.
I’m sure they already know how I feel about .
Really? Why would they? Because of something you said once, two years ago, on slide 23 of a PowerPoint presentation? Humans listen for patterns and emphasis to know what is important enough to commit to memory. Remember when NBA star Allen Iverson talked to reporters about practice? His rant became a pop-culture touchstone because he repeated the word “practice” 22 times, with forceful emphasis. You can’t forget Iverson’s interview. Experts agree that a leader needs to repeat key messages at least five times for them to stick, making over-communication nearly impossible. One of the most unfortunate examples of under-communicating I witness is when a leader assumes his/her direct report knows how much they are valued. “I don’t need to tell Carrie how impressed I was by her presentation; she knows.” Carrie doesn’t know. How would she? In fact, your silence might lead her to think she bombed.
Silence is Rarely Golden
Of course, sometimes our mother’s advice should be heeded. There are cases in which saying nothing at all is preferable to saying something hurtful and unconstructive. But I urge you to return to the object of your frustration at a later time, when you’ve cooled off and found a constructive way to share your message. Strategic silence may be a useful tool to maintain the peace, but avoiding crucial conversations altogether is far from golden.
Two Communication Traits of Effective Individuals
The most effective individuals I know are assertive and vulnerable, which probably sounds like a contradictory combination. Let me explain. These individuals are assertive in sharing what they believe to be true, or in addressing organizational problems, or in laying out a compelling vision of the future. They make their position known. They speak up. They posit. These individuals are in equal measure vulnerable. They put themselves out there by asking open-ended questions, sharing their perspectives even if they haven’t quite perfected the words, and are willing to listen to the audience’s response, readily acknowledging when it turns out that they were wrong. Leaders who master situational assertiveness and vulnerability have a huge advantage over their peers. They know how and when to send clear messages and they know how and when to listen to and acknowledge what is being said to them in return.
Even Magic Takes Practice
There is no magic wand in real life, but communication comes closest. Conversation can be transformative. Why do we talk to a close friend when we are going through a difficult time? Speaking about our troubles is cathartic. Even if our friend doesn’t say much in return, we feel better at having been heard. Whatever the issue, it feels less daunting once shared. Language has the power to put seemingly insurmountable problems into perspective. It’s no different in a work context. We need to talk about the things that are bothering us. Venting to a work friend is fine, but it is more important to come up with a strategy to talk to the co-workers who are positioned to address the bothersome issue. As with any conversation, we can’t ensure its outcome. We may be contradicted. We may sound silly because we haven’t quite got the right words. We may upset the audience because our message means they will have to stay late or start a project over.
But what is the alternative? That we fume silently? That we watch a major project spiral toward failure because we are too timid to point out its faults? That we assume someone else will say what needs said for us? That we wait for a coworker to change without ever telling them what we want them to do differently? Don’t suffer in silence. Very rarely will someone intuit your inner, unspoken desires, let alone fulfill them. And don’t assume that an offhand, indirect comment you made once will be internalized by your audience. This is as true in a personal context as a work context. What do we expect of those we care about, but never express directly? What is the profound cost of this silence?
Although its effects can be magical, communication is like exercise. We know it’s important. We know we ought to do more of it. Knowing is not the hard part. The hard part is being disciplined about communicating even when we feel insecure, or are reluctant to say something that will cause conflict, or feel like we’ve said something a hundred times already. We do not magically develop this discipline. It takes repetition. It takes practice. That’s right: We’re talking about practice.
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