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Effective communication skills for leaders

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”                                                                                                 - Winston Churchill

These iconic words from Winston Churchill, who led Britain to victory in the Second World War exemplifies the power of effective &  clear communication and its ability to inspire people to do things that they never thought possible. There is almost a story in there, isn’t it? With his references to very specific and varied parts of the terrain of the island and weaving in words to instil patriotism, these words are a master class in the power of words chosen and delivered wisely. 

Communication can make the difference between success and failure. Effective communication inspires others to take action, move projects forward, and sow the seeds for new ways of thinking. A survey from The Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that “unclear instructions from superiors, pointless meetings and other stressors can snowball into larger issues with widespread impacts on the business. Respondents say communication barriers are leading to a delay or failure to complete projects (44%), low morale (31%), missed performance goals (25%) and even lost sales (18%) - some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars”. When you're leading others, what you do, what you say, how you say things, and how you react are all seminal.

Here are 5 communication skills that will enhance your leadership journey and make you a more effective leader.

  1. Active Listening:

When it comes to communication these days, the analogy of the crocodile is an apt one; all mouth and no ears. 

Photo by Simon Watkinson on Unsplash

As Stephen.R.Covey famously remarked in his renowned book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, “ Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”.  

Effective leaders know when to talk and when to listen. They show they care by asking for others' opinions, ideas and feedback. They actively engage in the conversation by clarifying their questions, asking to elaborate and taking notes for follow-up action. Whether leaders pay attention to and how they respond to things matters a great deal to the team. In today’s world of digital distractions, if you let notifications, texts and calls constantly distract you, as a leader, you deliver inadequate commitment and focus to your team, which is why it is important to avoid interrupting and interruptions.

Like any skill, active listening can be developed through discipline and practice. By applying this to each conversation we have, we develop the ability to listen with intent and improve.  

  1. Open-Ended Questions:

An open-ended question is one that cannot be answered with just a “Yes” or “No”. They allow people to go into the details of what they think and express it in their own words from their vantage point. These are best suited for brainstorming sessions. 

The six honest serving men from Rudyard Kipling are a great framework to use to have conversations that demand open-ended questions.

I KEEP six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When 

And How and Where and Who.

      - Rudyard Kipling

 

Being open helps with difficult conversations with your colleagues. These go a long way in building authentic, trusted long-term relationships. Putting yourself in situations where you do not have all the answers is courageous and helps the team identify you as one of them. It will motivate others to do the same and lead to chance new initiatives and ideas. 

 

Transparency:

Gone are the days when leaders were revered as long as they raised the top line or the share price was doing well. Today, transparency is a leadership imperative and the young workforce demands a culture of candour. 

                                                              Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

By openly discussing the company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, leaders gain the trust of their teams and help build an environment where everyone feels empowered to share their ideas and collaborate. Public acknowledgement of genuine mistakes will create an experimentation-safe environment and encourage original thinking and creative problem-solving. Building an organisation is a team sport and nothing is more powerful than being able to make strong connections.

Indra Nooyi, ex-CEO of Pepsico was known for her open, transparent communication. In 2006, Pepsico was not at their best and Indra publicly addressed the challenges the company was facing at that time. She said, “The one thing I’ve learned is: Don’t lie to the people. Don’t tell your people one thing when the reality is something different”.  

 

Simple & Clear:

This is one of the most important elements of any communication. It is often remarked, ‘It is not what you say, but how you say it’. If a message is communicated in different ways, it will also be received in different ways. We react differently to identical situations, depending on how they are presented. 

There is a famous example of researchers presenting a group of people with two kinds of food, ‘99% fat-free’ and ‘1% fat’ and asked to choose which one was healthier. Any guess on which one was picked? Respondents ranked the first type as healthier; even though both were identical. 

                                    Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

It’s essential that the content of the communication is clear. We should use simple language; avoid idioms, slang, acronyms and jargon. These don’t translate well across diverse genders, cultures and even age groups. They can cause confusion and alienate people.  

  • What is the purpose of the message?
  • Who is the recipient and what should they know?
  • What is your goal? If there are multiple goals, lay out each separately.

Leaders across industries need to be inclusive and diverse in their outlook and their words, actions and behaviour need to reflect their promises. 

 

Empathy:

According to studies carried out by companies and agencies, empathy is the single most leadership skill management  needed today. Some companies estimate that it is so important that they have devised specialised ‘empathy training’ for their managers. 

One of the commonly cited causes for employee turnover is a lack of trust in and empathy from their managers. Empathy breeds trust. Employees are more likely to stay when they feel like they are acknowledged, heard and empathised with. Such employees put in more time and energy and develop new ideas. They identify a lot more with the organisation's priorities and collaborate with like-minded folks to help take the organisation forward.

Applied effectively, communication is a way to build empathy via a personalised approach. For example, you could tailor the communication channels based on the preferences of the individuals. Some groups may prefer instant messaging/text whereas another group may be more comfortable with emails/phone calls and a third group may choose face-to-face meetings. By being flexible and choosing a bouquet of communication channels, a leader can connect to the different audiences where they are most comfortable. Actions such as these go a long way in making the leaders diverse and inclusive.

     Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“I feel your pain” is quite powerful when it comes to its ability to connect and bond people even for a lifetime. ‘Treat others as you want to be treated’ is a basic lesson that our parents and teachers have told us a thousand times. If you want to enhance your communication and build more robust relationships with people and teams, nothing helps more than learning to empathise. 

 

Bonus:

One of the favourite lessons from Marshall Goldsmith, one of the leading executive coaches of the world is three words that kill conversations; ‘no’, ‘but’ and ‘however’. Listen to him here.

As we have seen above, by practising and perfecting the right skills, communication can be a key differentiator for leaders. Authentic communication inspires people to do things they never thought they could. Even move a mountain!

Improving your leadership communication:

Communication is the core of effective leadership. If you want to become an effective leader, you need to practise active listening, get into the habit of asking open-ended questions, promote transparency, be simple & clear in communication and above all embody empathy. 

The School of Meaningful Experiences (SoME) creates and delivers impactful transformative Communication programmes needed to overcome workplace challenges of the 21st-century post-pandemic professional world. We strongly believe effective, assertive and empathetic Communication skills will enable our learners to present themselves confidently, manage conflicts better, collaborate capably and become tomorrow's competent professionals and leaders.

SoME uses the unique Six Cs framework to meet the human skills requirements of today’s students and working professionals. The Six Cs – Communication, Confidence, Collaboration, Curiosity, Competence, and Creativity – are the engines for growth and accomplishment in today’s ultra-competitive and hyperconnected world.

Winston Churchill gave a nation hope during one of its dark phases and helped them be resilient and strong. His words had a bias for action. Some of his most memorable quotes include: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts” and “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”. Great examples of clear communication; short and to the point. He understood that people are more likely to remember short, powerful messages than lengthy, contorted ones. 

Great communication skills can open up new avenues and a vast range of careers. By examining what works and studying from the best, you can win, whether you are talking to your team, conducting a board meeting, making a pitch for investors or running for the local political office.


 

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