How Leaders Communicate - Proteus Leadership | Leadership Article
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How Leaders Communicate

Communicating isn’t the objective of a good leader. Understanding is the objective. Communication is simply the most important tool for accomplishing it.

Communicating is easy. Communicating effectively – both understanding and being understood – is a much more difficult leadership skill to develop.

Leaders sell

People buy for three reasons. They trust who they’re buying from, they have reasons that make sense for buying, and they feel good about their decision. That’s why leaders know how to sell – because everything is sold.

Believing that your ideas are so good they don’t have to be sold is the height of arrogance. It is ridiculous to think that if what you have to offer – ideas, products or services – is good enough, people will naturally see the light and buy them.

Still, I’ve had clients tell me that they feel selling is beneath them. Why does the word “selling” so often carry negative connotations?

Because people confuse selling with manipulation. The salesperson, they believe, is out to meet their goal at the customer’s expense and that salespeople want as much of their money as they can get, in exchange for as little of their product as they can provide. (Certainly not all salespeople are scrupulous or ethical, but no profession is without a few bad apples. Just don’t judge the entire orchard by a few rotten fruits.)

To commit to the principle of selling like a leader, you need a good definition of selling.

Selling is helping people make a decision that is good for them.

If you have a good idea, product or service that can benefit the buyer, it is your responsibility to sell it. Telling about it isn’t enough.

What happens if you have a superior idea or product poorly presented? The potential buyer will go somewhere else to find the idea or product they need – and it may not be as good as yours!

Go from “telling” to “selling”

The ancient Greeks studied the principles of persuasion and explained it as three components. They are ethos, pathos and logos:

1. Ethos

The root of the word ethics, represents a person’s character and credibility. People feel comfortable buying from someone who is credible. They trust that person and establish a rapport, a feeling of being comfortable. The basis of all rapport is perceived similarity.

The one thing a leader can always have in common with another person is their best interest.

When you communicate in such a way as to demonstrate that you want what is best for the other person, they will be drawn to you.

Leaders have people power because they recognise and appreciate the significance of others. When you communicate from the other person’s perspective, you quickly develop rapport.

Once you’ve won the trust of the listener, you’ve opened their mind to consider your message. You must find a way to impact them with what you want them to understand, and that requires making an emotional connection.

2. Pathos

Arouses the passions of the listener or audience. It includes the power of MOTIVE: “The meaning of their involvement vividly explained.”

If you’ve ever taken a sales course, you’ve heard this general truism: people buy on the basis of emotion and then justify their decision with logic.

I think it is more accurate to say that all the facts and figures won’t sell someone if the person doesn’t feel good about buying. Emotional impact is key in selling ideas and gaining commitment.

Yet good decision-making is seldom, if ever, made on emotion alone. There is another component of persuasive communication.

Most of us can recall getting engaged by the emotional only to regret the decision we made under those circumstances. We need more than emotion to buy whatever another person is selling, whether it is a product, a service or an idea. What justifies and supports the emotion of any decision is logic.

3. Logos

Is logic, the marshalling of reason? It is usually called into play right after a person thinks, “That sounds good, but…”. At that point, they’re looking for reasons to support their feelings.

Some people are more persuaded by emotion, while others weigh logic more heavily. Since leaders aren’t clairvoyant, they design their communication to include both – after, of course, they create rapport.

Impressing someone changes what they think about you. Influencing them changes what they do because of you.

Leaders influence

Impressing someone changes what they think about you. Influencing them changes what they do because of you.

Leaders care little about the impressions they make. Instead, they strive to influence others to take positive action.

Here’s how to influence every time you communicate:

1. Start with a question

“What do I want the person I’m communicating with to think, feel and do when I’m done?”

Be clear on what you want. If there was ever a time to “begin with the end in mind”, it is when you communicate.

A key leadership skill is to communicate intentionally. That means that they know what they want every conversation, email, phone call or speech to accomplish. Then they design what and how they will communicate to achieve it.

2. Focus on quality, not quantity

Ever heard it said – or say it yourself – that “things would be better if we just communicated more”? Often communicating more just creates more problems. Good communication is about quality, not quantity.

3. Speak the truth with compassion

Don’t tell people what they want to hear. Tell them what they need to hear. Just make sure you tell them in such a way that they’ll listen.

Too often, out of a fear of conflict or disagreement, the partial truth is told or the message deflected away from what really needs to be said. Telling the truth in a way that minimises conflict creates a number of benefits. It saves time, energises the relationship, builds trust and gets to the point.

Leaders aren’t always right – but they are clear about what they believe. In the process of expressing your unique point of view, remember that others often have a different perspective. One of the biggest obstacles to effective communication is discounting another’s point of view.

There is your view and their view – and often the best point of view lies somewhere in-between.

4. Focus on the listener, not the communicator

There are three modes of communicating. They are being:

  1. Self-centered
  2. Message-centered
  3. Listener-centered

To be listener-centered requires that you put personal needs aside and become so familiar with the message you are trying to communicate that you can focus on and respond empathically to the listener.

Either consciously or unconsciously, as most people listen, they ask themselves, “What does this mean to me?”.

Good communication answers that question by making it easy for the listener to understand the message’s impact.

5. De-complicate the message

Leaders are boil-down artists. They de-complicate the world and make it easy to understand. De-complicating means giving context to what you’re asking another person to do. It takes their personal view of the world, and fits it into your view of the world, for the shared and the bigger view of the world at large.
The only thing people have less of today – than disposable income or time – is attention.

With excessive demands on limited attention, effective communicators harness the power of the sound bite. They make concepts easy to understand and repeat.

6. Entertain to engage

Voltaire is reputed to have said that “any speaking style that wasn’t boring was a good style”. That’s because being boring is the unforgivable sin of communication.

For a leader to be heard and understood, they must break preoccupation and grab attention – in other words, entertain. The leadership skill they use is to capture and hold the attention of those being addressed. You can’t bore people into positive action.

7. Feedback and feed-forward

The best way to make sure another person has heard and understood what you said is to ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words. (But I advise not saying, “Now repeat it back to me in your own words” unless you want to alienate that person.) Just request a summary, and take responsibility for any lack of understanding. You could say, “I want to make sure I explained that clearly. Would you please tell me how you understand what I’ve said?”.

When leaders don’t take time to communicate clearly, the potential for misunderstanding – and even disaster – is high.

Feedback is excellent for adjusting your message and assuring understanding, but it is “after-the-fact”. To increase the odds of future success, you can use feed-forward, which provides people with the information they need to be successful before they undertake something.

Feedback – Provides evaluation of what has been done – Feed-forward clarifies expectations of what needs to be accomplished. It gives people the answers to the final exam in advance.

Feedback – Focuses on past performance – Feed-forward focuses on future performance. It talks specifically about what a successful performance will be like and enriches the description to enrich the outcome.

Feedback – Is remedial – Feed-forward is intended to be preventative. Rather than waiting until later to determine if you’ve communicated clearly, information is provided to prevent possible problems.

8. Tell a better story

“It is important that a leader be a good storyteller, but equally crucial that the leader embody that story in their life.” – Howard Gardner, a leading researcher in leadership development, Harvard University.

People generally aren’t that interested in what you’ve done. They are much more interested in what you’ve learned – and ultimately – most interested in what they can learn from your experience.

Gardener goes on to explain, “The best storytellers are those who can tell a story that’s strange enough to get people’s attention but not so strange that the people can’t eventually make it part of their own consciousness… existential stories are very important. They tell us who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the old poem that goes, “… I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day. I’d rather one would walk with me than simply point the way.”

Telling a story is good, but being the story is better. The congruency between who you are and the stories you tell as a leader create credibility. The purpose, however, isn’t to be speaker-focused, but to use personal experience and story as a bridge to build connection.

One of the best ways to help others find their place in the story is to give others the opportunity to tell their stories.

When they have the chance to see it fitting into the bigger story, you build mutual respect; First because you have given them your attention to listen, and secondly, because you know and understand them better.

And yet the best stories aren’t my stories or your stories – they are our stories. We share them because while the details and specifics vary, the themes we experience are so similar.

Good stories resonate because they transcend time and space and the truths they convey touch us deeply.

Good stories are an important part of relationship-building, of creating connection. Within organisations, you experience many of these stories together. In telling and retelling these stories, leaders share their perspective and what they learned. Others look at the same story from their personal vantage point and can share additional insights. Storytelling can be an interactive process for learning and growth.

What makes stories powerful is that they happen. That’s why parables are so powerful.

While they may not be factually true, they are always true philosophically and express an important concept.

Great leaders tell REAL stories.

It is important that a leader be a good storyteller, but equally crucial that the leader embody that story in their life.

9. Tell a REAL story

To be a better leader by telling better stories, remember that great stories are REAL:

Relevant – The listener should suspect and eventually see the application of the story to the situation, and/or them personally. Relevance is a good way to engage people. When they know there is a reason to listen, they’ll give you their attention.

Energising – Stories should be uplifting. They should stimulate intellectually and invigorate the spirits. Being reminded of great truths through powerful stories has a way of doing that.

Actionable – What am I supposed to do? That is the question a story should directly or indirectly answer, and if the answer isn’t implicit in the story, then the storyteller should make that connection.

Light – Stories should be easy enough to be retained. Complex or convoluted stories are difficult to understand, much less recall.

Good communicators know that serious medicine, like candy-flavoured cough syrup, often goes down best when it is sweetened. Good stories can be serious in intent and told humorously. Described as pain separated by time, humour can be used to discuss otherwise painful experiences and failures. Appropriate humour is never told at another’s expense. Effective leaders often make themselves the brunt of the humorous story. It shows that not only do they not take themselves too seriously, but that they, too, are only human. Good storytellers take their intentions seriously but themselves lightly.

10. Call for action

Scholars of Roman history say that when Cicero spoke, people marvelled. When Caesar spoke, people marched.

Cicero was impressive. Caesar influenced. What was the difference?

Great messages end with a call to action.

Too many communicate without a clear call to action. Every email, phone call, voicemail, conversation or speech can – and probably should – conclude with a “Let’s do it” indicated: let’s move forward, take the next step, get involved, play your part, etc.

An excellent technique for assuring commitment from others when making a request is to conclude by asking “Do I have your word on that?”.

That gives people a chance to seriously consider the agreement. If they have hesitations or reluctance, they will come up at that point. Most conscientious people take giving their word very seriously.

By Mark Sanborn
Published with permission from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) –


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