Leaders are skilled at communication. A seemingly simple statement but one that is, in actuality, endlessly complex. I discussed the basics in my blog post last March, Keep Your Communication Channels Clear, pointing out the importance of the three parts of communication (senders, message, and receiver), and reminding you to be sure you are aware of how the different channels affect those parts. Yet even those who are skilled can make errors. And communication errors can be damaging.
It doesn’t take much to do damage. At one of my libraries, teachers were always comfortable gathering in my workroom to talk and vent. One rare calm day, a teacher came in and was voicing her frustrations to me and my co-librarian. My co-librarian said in response, “You teachers…” and I could feel the gulf opening between the two of them. I spoke with my co-librarian about what I heard and saw. She hadn’t realized what she had done. Anyone can make an error, but if you don’t recognize it happened, the effects can destroy any connections you are trying to build.
In another instance, I was the one who almost made an unwitting mistake. I was going to send a memo to my Assistant Principal. I can no longer remember the matter, but I was concerned about a problem and wanted his help. Fortunately, before sending it, I showed it to the teacher who was responsible for our School to Career program. (He shared space in my library and gave me the tech he got with his grants). He encouraged me not to send it, explaining how a man would read it and react. I re-wrote the memo with his oversight and got the results I wanted. I’m not suggesting you always check before you send something to a teacher or administrator who is not your gender, but you might find it enlightening to have a spouse or friend look something over. You might be as surprised as I was.
Clear communication is an ongoing art form. A recent online post by Nick Morgan, How the Communication Rules Have Changed, presents five new rules which will help you do a better job of getting your message out.
Your “Less” Is Their “More” – Morgan points to the barrage of information we receive each day and how our tolerance for reading long texts is decreasing. In the past, I have reminded librarians not to give administrators background about requests or problems. (This connects to the gender issue – see above). Get to the point immediately. Offer details if requested. We have a tendency to “bury the headline.” By the time your administrator hears or reads what you want, his/her mind has gone elsewhere – and that’s assuming s/he gets there at all. Morgan also suggests you think your idea through the other person’s perspective and “tell them what they need to hear, not what you’d love them to know.”
We Experience Our Lives Chronologically, But That’s Not How Other People Want to Hear Them – This relates to the previous rule. We want to give our “receiver” a complete picture. They don’t have the time or interest to listen. You need to grab attention quickly. I love Morgan’s reminder that Homer started the Iliad at the end as the two sides headed into the final battle. Having captured your interest, he backfills the story itself. You, too, need to capture the receiver’s interest first.
The Body Language of the Virtual World Is Self-Defeating – There is no true “body language” in the virtual world. Even in Zoom or Skype meetings, you don’t get the same degree of body language as you do in person. We have developed new habits based on this, and it carries over into our face-to-face meetings. One result is that our manners have slipped. Have you ever been on a webinar and checked your e-mail or played a computer solitaire game? We bring that behavior into our face-to-face meetings. Unless the gathering is very small (and even then), you will see people checking their phones. It is not only rude, it means you have stopped listening. I can’t remember leading or attending a large group session where a sizeable percentage of people weren’t texting. Leaders need to be active listeners.
Because People Aren’t Paying Attention, Their Contribution Standards Are Crumbling – If you are not listening, you are not contributing. Don’t be the person who sends texts during a meeting. All studies show multi-tasking doesn’t work. To fight your own urge to look at your phone, take notes. It will keep you focused, and you will be a better contributor to the meeting – and it will be noticed.
The Pause is Still the Greatest Secret Weapon a Communicator Has – This is one I need to work on. Whether it’s stepping up to the mic at a large meeting or responding to something said at a small one, take a moment before talking. It’s an attention-grabber and will focus people on what you want to say. It also gives you just enough time to remember to begin with what the others want to hear ((see suggestion #1).
All this is a reminder that we are always communicating —often without any thought of how it is received. And yet, it’s vital that our stakeholders receive the message we intended to send. I have reached the conclusion you can’t learn too much about communication. There is always room for improvement.