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Leading Through Communication

What do you do to invest in this key life and leadership skill?

Key points

  • Communication involves listening: Setting a listening intention keeps you on track; practicing helps you perfect your skill.
  • Communication is more than words: Remember to manage your body language and paralingual elements (vocal tone and qualities), too.
  • Be inclusive in your communication, using clarity, conciseness, and emotional intelligence.
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Communication is a key life and leadership competency that influences everything we do.

Whether you’re leading a team, your children, or the government, these five communication skills will make your life and leading easier.

1. Listening

Good listening is key for building psychological safety and trust, demonstrating respect, and gathering intelligence. Yet, according to Ralph G. Nichols, we listen with only around 25 percent effectiveness. Improve on this invaluable skill by appreciating the three levels of listening:

  • Level 1: “Me” listening — where we focus on our own internal monologue — e.g., “How should I respond to their question?” Or simply, “What will I have for lunch?”
  • Level 2: “You” listening — adopting an other-focus by paying attention to someone — their words and also their non-verbal communication: body language and voice.
  • Level 3: “We” listening — paying attention to the environment and energy in the space — e.g., “Things are getting heated.” Or, “We’re really co-creating now.”

How much time do you spend at each level? These two practices can help your listening powers.

  • Set an intention to listen: This will help to focus your attention and motivation. Your intention might look like this, for example: “In this meeting, I am going to give my full attention—for at least the first 5 minutes.” Setting an intention focuses your cognitive resources on how you’d like to show up and lays down neural pathways for new behaviors.
  • Practice and hone your listening skills: Listening is a generative skill that gets better with practice. In "Deeply Generous Listening Takes Practice," I introduce the LISTEN acronym to help you hone your practice.

2. Non-verbal communication

Even if no words are spoken, you—and others—are still conveying information. The two main components of nonverbal communication are:

The paralingual: This includes the qualities of our voice: tone or intonation, pitch, speed or tempo, volume, and pauses. Exercising vocal variety—with control—makes you a more impactful, engaging, and interesting communicator. How can you use qualities such as tone, pitch, speed, pauses or silence to better reach your audience?

Body language:

  • Posture — even before we speak, our body posture is already sending a message: Think about the way someone standing erect, slumping, and crossing arms or legs gives the "listener" subtle messages.
  • Gestures — hand movements, a head jerk, glancing at watch, pointing, clenching fists — all can emphasize, weaken, or even contradict what is being said.
  • Facial expressions — a frown, smile, raised eyebrow, eye roll can all, appropriately or inappropriately, convey a message!

Pay attention to non-verbal cues—including your own. Manage your body language, both when listening and talking. Your facial expression, posture, and gestures need to connect with your message—and with the audience. Think about your "go-to" body language or vocal habits.

  • What do you tend to do? What message does it give people?
  • What do you want or need to do to better convey your message?
  • What about other people? Is their body language congruent with their words?

Ensure that you maintain consistency of the message between your words and your non-verbal communications.

3. Inclusivity

Think about how you can adjust your communication to engage different people—e.g., introverts, individuals from different cultures who don’t speak up, young people, people with different seniority, levels of experience, or stakeholders. Here are four tips:

  • See others as potential sources of intelligence, ideas, inspiration, and as innovators to ensure that the best ideas emerge.
  • Ask or invite people to participate.
  • Identify different ways for people to contribute (email, chat, or try creative brainstorms, etc.).
  • Include your boss—to keep them informed and to manage up, as part of career development.

4. Clarity and Conciseness

Follow the Goldilocks rule—don’t say too much or too little—just enough. If you ramble, your listener will either tune you out or be uncertain what you want. Here are two ways to do it:

  • Remember the mantra: “Clear is kind” (Brené Brown).
  • Have a clear ask or call to action.

Clear: “We will take a bathroom break at 10:30."

Unkind: “It has come to my attention that there are a vast number of people participating on this webinar from many corners of the globe. I want to thank you for creating this inclusive space, and I know it will be highly desirable if we pause at some point in time and give you all the opportunity to visit the facilities.”

5. Emotional Intelligence

All the communication skills mentioned call for self-awareness—exploring where you are on your communication and leadership journey.

Emotions are contagious, particularly those of the leader. People are more likely to remember a negative encounter with the boss than a positive one. Leaders want to effectively navigate their emotions and remain calm under pressure. Emotional regulation helps you to be a positive role model and to communicate or deliver feedback in a way that encourages conversation and change, rather than defensiveness, entrenchment, and disconnection.

  • Know your triggers
  • Don’t react in the moment.
  • Use "calming-down" strategies (breathwork, counting to 10, going for a walk).

Which practices work when you feel triggered? Add to them to increase your options.

Empathy builds psychological safety, trust, and connection. It is essential for finding common ground with your audience and understanding what it will take to shift someone’s beliefs or behavior to move or persuade them. You can think of empathy as intelligence gathering, with three components:

  1. Perspective-taking — find out someone’s perspective or truth
  2. Feeling with — find out what someone is feeling
  3. Compassion — find out what they need

To exercise empathy, we ask questions in a non-judgmental way to uncover what someone thinks and feels, versus assuming we know or projecting our thoughts or feelings onto them.

Whenever we are leading, we want to communicate and connect our team to a compelling vision (even if that vision is a device-free lunchtime!); inspire, influence and persuade; be heard and understood, and engage others. Being mindful and intentional about our communication skills helps us engage hearts and minds and have the impact we desire.

More from Palena R. Neale Ph.D, PCC
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