How many times have you been in a conversation where the person you are communicating with is saying one thing, but everything about them is indicating something completely different? Or where you felt supremely confident that your message had been clear and perfectly understood by the other person, only to find out later that only fragments of your message were understood, and worse- they were fragments that didn’t even add up to the task you were delegating. Now, add in virtual communications and George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote seems more relevant than ever before: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Welcome to the complexity of the big C - Communication, which is, without doubt, one of the more complicated aspects involved in leading others effectively. But effective communication is also one of the core pillars of impactful leadership, so let us dig in.
Why is it so difficult for us as humans to communicate effectively with others?
Well, first off, there are a myriad of variables that play into each communication equation.
We are way more than just our words. Don’t get me wrong, words are important. But so is my tone, my body language, and, more specifically, my facial expressions. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of our facial tensions, but I can assure you, others are picking up on them instantaneously.
Another aspect of why communications can be so challenging is what happens to our brains during the process of conversing.
Our brains have been wired to protect us. So, if a conversation goes off track, our rational responses can be overridden by our brain’s desire to keep us safe. Our brain is responding to that simple communication “threat” as if we were being attacked by a saber-tooth tiger. What happens in these moments is called an amygdala hijack (our amygdala is a small part our brain that is involved with the experiencing of emotions). When our amygdala fires up, it diverts blood from our brains to our hands and our feet in preparation to help us either fight, flee or even just freeze. Without that blood in the brain, we are left to make decisions with somewhat dysfunctional intellectual equipment, kind of like trying to make a decision when you are at the top of Mount Everest which is approximately 29,000 feet above sea level (Read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer if you haven’t already).
So, here are a few tips to help you navigate communication pitfalls:
- Prepare and Empathize
-Have I prepared my thoughts, so I am being clear, direct and emotionally honest?
-Is the communication being received as kind or unkind?
-I am being real/authentic?
-Am I or they: angry, hungry, tired, distracted?
- Ask versus Tell
Make asking questions your go-to weapon. Whenever you are unsure about how to proceed, ask a question and then listen. Leaders that ask questions are way more effective than leaders that dictate. Question-asking is a great way to build interpersonal relationships while at the same time getting information for all parties to make better decisions.
- Check your Tone
Ask yourself - How is my tone impacting the other person? Make sure you are feeling grounded and centered when communicating and that you are aware of how your tone is affecting the other person.
- Ask What Has Been Understood
This is such a simple and obvious tip but most leaders don’t take the time to hear back what has been received. This is where we can measure what has been taken in and what has been missed. This gives us the ability to clarify anything that was misunderstood before we leave the meeting.
- End on a Positive
Strong endings are just as important as strong beginnings, and ones that end on a positive note can uplift and propel members forward together. So, no matter what comes before, make sure you intentionally build in time to end on a positive note.
There is no doubt that we need to have strong communication to support ourselves, our co-workers, our clients, and our all-around business growth. The big C is the glue that keeps it all together. Without it we struggle to stay connected and aligned, share information, and motivate and inspire ourselves and our teams to continue moving forward.
In the end, it is helpful to simply remember this powerful truth from one of the greats:
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
I'd love to hear your thoughts and/or questions on how you navigate/overcome the complexities of communications in your work.