Leaders Must Be Strong Communicators

Communication is as natural as breathing and just as constant in our lives. Unlike breathing, however, there is so much room for error, it needs our focus and attention. Leaders need to be clear in their communication. When people receive a clear message, they are more likely to support, trust, and follow you. Taking time to improve your communication skills makes you a more successful leader.

In a post on SmartBrief, Want Real Leadership Growth? Focus on Strengthening as a Communicator,  Al Petty writes “too often, we ignore the centrality of communication effectiveness to effective leadership”. He goes on to say, “everything important in our careers and working lives takes place in one or more challenging conversations, and every communication encounter is critical if you lead.” There is a direct correlation between your success as a leader and your effectiveness as a communicator.

Petty notes that every failed professional situation in his career was proceeded by problems in communication. Poor communication inevitably has a negative effect on desired outcomes. For example, when a plan isn’t working, before changing the plan, check to see if everyone is clear on what to do, who’s to do it and why it’s being done. On the flip side, good communication produces even greater positive results than expected.

According to Petty you need to put these three tactics into operation to improve your communication skills and avoid the fumbles that detract from your leadership:

Listen Harder – There is almost nothing more powerful you can do to benefit your communication than to be a great listener. Unfortunately, in our eagerness to respond to what someone is saying or to get our point across, we stop listening. Our brain is busy constructing what to say as soon as the other person stops talking. We may think we are paying attention, but in this situation, we are, at best, hearing only the surface information which means we are more likely to miss the core of the message. Petty states, by “focusing intently on the person in front of you, you are projecting empathy, showing respect and gaining critical verbal and nonverbal insights necessary to truly communicate”. All of these increase your ability to be an effective leader.

Slow Down and Respect the Persuasion Cycle – Being eager to get to the end goal, it is easy to keep pushing for a response. When we do, we are apt to be faced with the other personal stonewalling and resisting what we’re suggesting. A good maxim to remember is, “No one wants to be sold. Everyone wants to buy.” The challenge is to make someone want to buy.

Petty explains the “Persuasion Cycle” as moving a person from

  • Resisting to Listening,
  • Listening to Considering,
  • Considering to Doing,
  • Doing to Being Glad They Did.

Knowing what the other person wants and needs helps you frame your message, so they move from resisting to listening. When you actively listen to their response you can elicit their willingness to consider your message. They now are interested in doing.

The final step in the cycle is the important piece. When the person is “Glad They Did” you have a supporter and advocate. The next time you approach them, your conversation is more likely to start at Considering or Doing portion of the cycle.

Design Your Critical Communication Messages – When the message is important, it is worth time and effort to get it exactly right. You don’t want to have any words that detract from it. Each word counts and has weight. Writing, rewriting, and testing it with a mentor or trusted colleagues will help you get it clear.

According to Petty, you need to have “three or four core drivers behind your core message.” The drivers are the foundation for why the message is so important. In the library world, one core driver is the students. They are the emotional tie that brings the most response. Test results are another driver. School and district goals are powerful drivers if you connect to them. Budget can be another.

Illustrate your core drivers so your audience understands them as clearly as possible. Pictures, graphics, and videos are more quickly internalized than text. Use the language your receivers understand. If you are talking with administrators in schools, they know the educational terms but not library terminology. If necessary, change from the terms you use to the ones they do.

If you review your past success and challenges, chances are you will see a correlation with the strength or weakness in communication. Taking the time to work on your communication skills – listening, persuading, designing your message – will exponentially increase your success. The better your ability to communicate, the better your ability to lead.

Beyond EDI

There’s one more step we need to take.

An important and ongoing issue in our schools is the importance of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). It is something we must address in how we run our libraries. We recognize all three must be integrated into our daily practices to ensure that the library is a safe, welcoming place for all. But is there more that we can do, and, if so, what is it?

Before looking ahead, it’s important to review how this process has changed. An early understanding was realizing the difference between equality and equity. Equality means everyone gets the same thing, for example, all students get Chrome Books. Equity takes into account that not everyone is starting at the same point and resources are allocated to minimize or, even better, eliminate the difference so all have the same opportunity. It means that not only does every student have a Chrome book, but access to wi-fi so they can be used whenever needed.

Diversity addresses the need for everyone to be represented. Your collection should have materials that show a broad understanding of the many cultures, ethnics, genders, and physical distinctions that make up our communities. Even if our communities appear monochrome, the country and the world aren’t. Your collection must represent this. It’s not a diverse collection if all it has are the five “F’s”(food, festivals, folklore, fashion, and famous people). Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop first talked of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors in 1990 (you can read the full article here). She stated:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)

We now look for #ownvoices and other sources to build a wider, more authentic collection.

Inclusion shows up in who is in the top classes and who is in the bottom. We can see it in the members of student government and in academic competitions. It is also visible in the cafeteria and on the bus. To create an inclusive environment where there wasn’t one takes planning, communication and patience, getting different groups to collaborate with each other.

We certainly have become better at creating a safe, welcoming place for all, but there is one more step to take. Belonging goes beyond EDI. Belonging is about emotions. It tells you how people feel about your library. Sometimes EDI feels like you are just following a set of the newest directions set down from administrators. While important, it doesn’t have that added sense of a welcoming embrace.

LaFawn Davis explains to the business world How Belonging Differs from Diversity and Inclusion — and Why It Matters. She quotes Verna Myers who said, “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Davis then adds, “belonging is knowing all the songs.” You can feel the difference.

Davis recommends surveys to get some answers about belonging, giving this example:

We asked respondents to consider five statements regarding inclusion and belonging and select an answer ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Two of the statements were specifically related to psychological safety, the underpinning of belonging:

  • When I speak up, my opinion is valued.
  • I feel comfortable coming forward with concerns or complaints, without the fear of retaliation.

Do all your students feel their opinion is valued? Do they worry a concern or fear of theirs will be bring retaliation or just be brushed off?  Can you have conversations with students to get answers, or does that already suggest the answer?

She also suggests creating “opportunities for connections” based on interests. As you launch a research project, how can you frame it so that you get diverse members working in collaborative groups. Do formative assessments as they go along to see that all voices are being heard and welcomed.

Your Mission, as Davis says, can promote belonging. Review your Mission and make any tweaks necessary to include belonging. Keep checking to gauge how well this part of your Mission is unfolding and being lived by your audience.

Diversity is having a seat at the table; inclusion being having a voice. Belonging is the support you get for that voice. The school library has been a haven for so many over the years. It’s where countless students have felt safe. Take it one step beyond and make it the place where they feel they belong – and belong with others.