As often as not, when I get asked for advice on how to handle communication in difficult situations and walk through my approach, the person asking for help is a little disappointed. To be clear, they understand the approach and can see that it will work but they are hoping for a silver bullet to magically make it easy. The reality is that good communication takes work, practice, and most of all, it takes ownership.
If you accept that the role of a leader is to influence others to take action, communication becomes more than an optional “soft” skill; it’s essential to the success of any leader. Yet all too often I encounter people in leadership roles that give it little thought.
As an example, at conference sessions I’ll ask for a show of hands for how many people regularly have meetings where everyone leaves the meeting with truly a common understanding of what was discussed. The results are grim - most of us feel that this seldom occurs. Why do we let this happen? Why do we accept that we’ll walk away with different interpretations and just hope for the best?
We often put the blame on others for not “getting” us. Sometimes it’s a bit of ego or taking pride in the fact that not everyone can understand us. Sometimes we blame the listener for not understanding this and believe we couldn't be any clearer.
These attitudes all reflect a lack of ownership. Sure, there are some situations where a person simply can’t understand what you’re talking about, but that’s arguably rare. We use excuses and blame the listener to protect ourselves from thinking that the fault is in ourselves. The reality is, communication can be a tool, a skill, even a strategy, but unfortunately effective communication doesn’t come from a magic bullet or a mystical cure-all.
Successful communication comes through ownership
We need to be able to listen and hear what people are telling us: their concerns, their needs, their expertise, their perspectives. We as leaders own understanding them and asking questions to make sure we’re clear before trying to get them to understand us. And that’s the second half of the ownership; making sure we’ve been understood. Communication is more than just sending an email. It’s more than giving a single speech. It’s verifying that people actually “get” you, and finding different ways of communicating when people don’t understand you.
Some people that I've coached have felt that this isn't fair and ask why should they be expected to own both sides of communication if other people aren't expected to? The answer is that this isn't about fairness, it's about your success. If you want to be successful in any kind of leadership role you need to be able to communicate effectively, and doing that takes ownership.
It’s hard work at first but it’s worth it.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.