Think about the last time a miscommunication negatively impacted you, your team, and/or your firm. Odds are, it happened within the past few business days, if not the past 24 hours. Whether in terms of time, money, reputation, or energy, the cost of ineffective communication and misunderstanding is astounding. As you consider this more deeply, I have little doubt you’ll find countless examples of supporting evidence on your team and throughout your organization. Even worse, rest assured there’s additional negative impact below the surface, as poor communications invisibly erode morale and teamwork.
My globally deployed coaching colleagues and I agree: Regardless of industry, culture, geography, or stage of growth, under-communication is one of the most prevalent and costly issues in business. The problem is, we leaders think we’re pretty good at it, and yet there are piles of evidence and never-ending complications that point to the exact opposite conclusion.
The primary function of any leader is to point to what matters most. This includes, for example, strategy, culture (core values), priorities, goals, expectations, and much more. Effective pointing includes effective communication.
And effective communication is never a “one and done” affair!
Research and my own experience, both as a communicator and a coach, consistently point to four disciplines that dramatically improve the effectiveness and impact of one’s communication. They are context, framing, repetition, and questions.
With practice, each can be learned and applied to great effect at little or no cost.
Think about a time when you needed to interrupt a family member or friend telling a story and ask them to backtrack and fill in a missing detail or something that didn’t make logical sense to you. This is a perfect illustration of the universal reality that, despite our best hopes and assumptions, other people simply don’t have the same information (context) in their head as we do! In the instance you’re thinking about, the storyteller may have glossed over a point that was well known (or assumed) to them, but unknown to you—which disrupted the logic of the story and caused you to ask for additional detail.
This same scenario occurs all the time in professional settings, but when you add a power gradient where the communicator is more senior than the listener, it’s much more rare that you’ll be interrupted and asked to fill in a missing detail. Rather, in these cases, the listener leaves the conversation without clear understanding or even worse, totally confused.
The communication insight here for leaders is to be aware that other people rarely, if ever, share the same information and context you possess. Context can include why something is important (to the business or to you personally), the history of a circumstance or issue, the definition or meaning of certain ideas or things, the background of the people who are involved in something, and more.
It’s useful to imagine a canyon separating your context from your listener’s context. As the communicator, it’s your job to cross the bridge, meet them where they are, then lead them across the bridge to your perspective (now sharing your information and context) before beginning to communicate your message. How else could you reasonably expect them to understand you?
This is a real challenge for senior leaders, particularly in situations where they are addressing large groups of employees. In these instances, be deliberate about clarifying not just your messaging, but also how you’ll build the logical bridge first to ensure that each person in the room shares your information and context.
Most leaders focus on the message first; the best communicators build shared context first.
How you communicate an idea is more important than the idea itself in terms of understanding and retention. In other words, framing matters.
For example, let’s say that my idea is this: “3591115.”
That’s the information without any framing. It’s knowable, but likely not very memorable when I communicate it to others. Now let’s say I framed that same idea this way: “odd numbers from 3 to 15, without 7 and 13,” or—even better—this way: “at 3:59 pm there were 111 people in the casino betting on the number 5.”
Suddenly, the string of numbers takes on a different meaning; importantly, one that you can retain more easily and repeat to others. The difference is that, with the framing, there’s a story to which the listener can relate. And we all like to hear a good story! Here’s why:
Researchers have found that when we hear a good story, we produce more oxytocin—the “feel good” hormone that boosts feelings of trust, compassion, and empathy. Framing your message as a story or as an analogy stacks the odds in favor of others receiving, understanding, and retaining your message.
How can you convert your communication into an analogy or simple story to frame it for your listeners?
Most leaders present their thoughts and ideas; the best communicators utilize framing to make them more understandable and more memorable.
Repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning. Repetition is the mother of all learning.
Although countless studies have identified spaced repetition–a repeated exposure to information–as the most effective method for learning and retention, many leaders possess a mindset that the need to repeat themselves reflects poorly on their leadership or on their team. Too many times, I’ve heard things like: “I’ve already told them twice. They should get it by now.” This is a massive missed opportunity!
If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not really pointing to what matters most. If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective communicator.
Just how effective is repetition? It’s so effective that learning occurs through exposure alone, regardless of the learner’s intentions.
Think back to your childhood and recall an advertising slogan, or perhaps the words to a jingle. The example I use for clients in the USA (ahem, of a certain age like mine) is to finish this sentence: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese…” The answer is: “pickles, onion on a sesame bun.” And it’s describing the Big Mac at McDonalds which was an advertisement we were exposed to repeatedly over time. Without the intent of learning it, here we are many (many!) years later and we still know the words!
For the cost of absolutely nothing, repeat yourself more. Much more! This allows the mechanism of spaced repetition learning to work its magic for you.
I teach my coaching clients to use an “eye-roll metric” when assessing whether they’ve repeated their messages enough. You know you’re getting through when your team begins to roll their eyes as you repeat yourself and then completes your sentences for you. Then—and only then—you’ll know for sure that you’ve communicated successfully.
Most leaders are “one and done” broadcasters; the best communicators utilize repetition deliberately and to great effect.
There are few guarantees in life, but one of them is this: If you ask a question, you’ll wind up with better information than you had before you asked. And yet, many leaders completely ignore the power of questions as an element of how they communicate.
I’m referring specifically to open-ended questions, like “what do you intend to do next?” I’m not referring to closed-ended questions with a yes or no answer, like “is this clear?”
Use open-ended questions to assess exactly what information someone else has before and as you communicate so that you can share your information and then more appropriately frame the communication to resonate with them. This technique also works well to confirm someone’s understanding of your information and/or request.
Here’s an example of how this works when you delegate something to a member of your team:
After you’ve framed the context of the task being delegated (why it matters) and what you expect as the result, use questions to confirm the other person’s understanding.
For the record, the worst question ever is: “Do you understand?” First, it’s closed-ended. Second, consider how infrequently people tell the truth when they don’t understand something—rarely at best!
Rather, ask something like this: “To be sure we’re on the same page, give me an overview of your understanding of the objective and the first few steps you intend to take as you get going on this.” It’s neither insulting nor demeaning, but it does force clarity. At that point, they’ll either give you the answer back as you expect, or they won’t—in which case you can course correct them on the spot, and then reconfirm their understanding. This one technique will save the leaders in your firm countless hours of frustration, delays, and rework!
How can you incorporate more open-ended questions into your communications with others?
Most leaders communicate by telling alone; the best communicators ask questions as they tell to confirm understanding.
Like every other leader, you have the potential to become an exceptionally effective communicator. As I discussed at length in this article, there are two required elements for any change to occur: desire and willingness.
To begin the process of improving, first acknowledge that you’re probably not as effective at communicating as you think you are, and that miscommunication exerts a significant drag on your firm’s performance. Next, you’ll need to be willing to do the work to improve!
Context, framing, repetition, and questions will improve your capabilities as a communicator and, therefore, as a leader. As you perform your primary role of pointing to what matters most, you’ll bring more of your team with you more often, you’ll improve morale and teamwork, and you’ll reduce the frustrating and costly effects of misunderstanding.
How do you see this unfolding in your organization?
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