What is effective communication?
I recently witnessed an extreme shift in effective communication that left the staff in an office reeling and made me question the effectiveness of a leader.
I was working in an office in the Helderberg area. It was an open-plan office and there were five people at their desks tapping at their laptops. There was a lot of banter going on, with everyone working together to find solutions to their problems. One of the problems was that they were trying to crew up a team for a film production and they were struggling to find the right people. It was a hive of jokes, banter and creativity.
The “boss” arrived also in a good mood, contributing to the jovial mood.
She switched on her laptop and opened her emails. One of the first emails she read was that the production that they were currently busy with was a few hundred thousand over budget.
The proverbial sh!t hit the fan.
The “boss” started screaming and shouting about this financial issue, targeting no one in particular but at the same time everyone in the office – even though it had nothing to do with them. I think a good part of Stellenbosch heard her.
Instantly the mood changed. The staff members dropped their heads, trying to hide behind their computer screens. The banter, laughter, and idea-sharing came to an abrupt halt, filling the room with silence. Everyone was on tenterhooks.
The boss asked someone an accusing question, and when they couldn’t reply, she screamed, “What am I paying you all for? It seems like nothing gets done when I’m not around!”
Why wasn’t this effective communication?
Besides the obvious – that no one really wants to be spoken to in that way – what the boss managed to do in a few brief outbursts, was to squash creativity – and that includes problem-solving. She created an environment where people wanted to hide instead of contribute, and spoke in a way that would take a while to repair
When I speak about effective communication, I’m not referring to presentation skills, or public speaking skills. I’m talking about the communication skills that are needed to develop interpersonal relationships.
Effective communication embodies respect for both ourselves and others.
Why I believe effective communication to be so important is because organisations, even though they are profit-driven, are made up of people – people with varying degrees of sensitivity.
In our lives where so much more time is spent in the digital world, we still thrive on interpersonal relationships and connections.
As Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”
Whether spoken or written the power of how what we say is long-lasting.
In my program on developing effective holistic leadership skills, the module on effective communication has become so important that it now forms its own stand-alone program as effective leadership is heavily dependent on effective communication skills.
The key to effective leadership is that it’s about leading and contributing to the growth and development of those around us. This should always be in the back of our minds and form part of how we communicate.
Effective communication is about HOW we talk
We talk on the phone. We talk in meetings. We talk to each other in the office. We gossip, and we talk at home to our significant other.
Talking takes up a big part of our day.
Too much talking can label someone “long-winded,” and talking too little can result in a person being labelled “shy” or “introverted”.
In my effective communication program when we workshop talking, the content related to talking focuses on how we can get the “message” across most effectively where nothing can get lost in translation.
A formula for effective communication
The formula that I introduce is very similar to the formula needed for setting goals, something that effective leaders do.
There are four questions.
W – What do you want?
W – By when do you want it done?
W – Who is going to do it?
W – Why do you want it done?
This formula is effective because we, and our ability to communicate effectively, are affected by internal and external influences that impact the way we think and talk.
Our moods – being in a bad mood can make us irritable.
Our energy levels – being tired can contribute to forgetfulness.
Situations – others might make us impatient.
Our environment – being stuck in an office with no aircon due to load-shedding can make us all hot, sweaty, and bothered.
Excitement – can lead us to speak too quickly.
If we continually refer back to this formula for effective communication, we can ensure that we compile the message we wish to relay in a concise manner so that nothing gets lost in translation.
Effective communication enables accountability
For accountability to exist, we need three things to be in place:
- Clear expectations
- The effective communication of those expectations.
- A buy-in that the expectation has been understood and agreed to.
The beauty of this formula is that our mind reacts to questions, and it cancels out the external noise. It can be used when we’re wanting to delegate tasks or when setting up the theme for a meeting (and it eliminates a lot of long-winded talking in meetings if everyone knows what the desired outcome is.)
It can also be used intrinsically when we’re setting personal goals and tasks so that we can hold ourselves accountable.
Keeping in mind that a leader’s role is to contribute to the growth and development of those around them, my rule of thumb – especially when we’re needing to pass feedback or when we’re dealing with a possible conflict – is to talk to others in the same manner in which you would like to be spoken to.
Another key component of effective communication
One of the questions I ask in my effective communications program when I get to the listening section is: “How long do we actively listen for?”
Usually, the answer is somewhere between 2-5 minutes.
In a recent program that I facilitated for an organisation linked to the wine industry in Stellenbosch I was surprised when someone came very close to the correct answer.
Before I get to the big reveal, take a moment to think how long it takes you before you get distracted, wander off mentally, or feel the need to interrupt.
Nancy Kline, founder and president of “Time to Think” states in her recent book: “The Promise That Changes Everything – I won’t interrupt you” that according to the Gottman Institute in Seattle, the average listening time is now down to 11 SECONDS!
And that is down from 20 SECONDS only 3 years ago.
My initial thoughts when I read this were:
- If it only took 3 years to drop 9 seconds how soon will it be before we’re not listening at all?
- If we’re only listening for 11 seconds how much information and what experiences are we missing out on – two things that are crucial for effective leadership to happen?
- What will happen to relationship-building because that requires communication of which listening is a big part?
Listening for effective communication
Why are we listening less?
We are now more easily distracted because of our continuous access to information, but I’m not going to go into the many effects related to our dependency on smartphones…
Except for one interesting fact that came to my attention.
Recent studies have shown that when people’s phones are visible, even if they’re off and everyone in the room knows this, the mere presence of the phone was enough to reduce cognitive capacity. (Assistant professor Adrian Ward, McCombs School of Business, University of Texas, Austin)
A smartphone sitting on a table – even switched off – has enough power to divert our attention and reduce our ability to think clearly. So, for us to listen clearly to understand, for effective communication to happen, we need to limit any distractions and be fully present.
Stephen Covey said: “The biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
Another reason why effective communication doesn’t happen
This brings up the next point of why our listening skills are diminishing – interrupting!
I’ve been in conversations with other people and while they’re talking, I’m not only thinking about my answer but I’m actually chomping at the bit to get my say in. I want to interrupt them, and I have interrupted them, because interrupting people has become the norm and is very difficult to control.
Interrupting is a sign of passive aggression. The act of interrupting is stating things like:
“My opinion is more important than yours – yours doesn’t count!”
“Listen to what I have to say because I know more than you.”
“Listen to me, I’m more important than you.”
Interrupting is not only discourteous; it also takes us out of the present moment. It disengages us from what the other is saying so that we might fail to understand the message they’re trying to convey. Interrupting someone makes it more likely that information can get lost in translation.
Interrupting is fundamentally not effective communication.
An effective leader takes time to understand that we are different, and that we communicate in different ways. Some might take slightly longer to get their message across – but usually not so long that interrupting them is the right way to go.
An excellent exercise I did at the recent program I facilitated in Stellenbosch was not to blatantly interrupt – stopping someone mid-sentence – but to “tailgate,” which is another form of interrupting.
During a scripted conversation between two people, I jumped in and ended a sentence as the other one as speaking.
As I was the program facilitator, initially the other person was ok with it, but the more I did it the more frustrated she became until she exploded and said: “You’re exactly like my boyfriend – finishing all my sentences. I hate it when he does that!”
Even though some of us may think it’s sweet to tailgate (in a relationship), it is actually a form of interrupting that is rude and disruptive.
I know most of us have sat in a meeting that just goes on and on and on, with everyone wanting their say, and feeling frustrated with the one person who just won’t stop talking…
So, when and how do we interrupt?
Try getting in when there is a natural pause while being polite.
The never-ending meeting can be brought back on track with: “Paul, we’re a bit off topic and time is running out, can you…”
Ask for permission. “Can I just jump in here for a moment…?”
Apologise for the interruption. “I’m sorry for interrupting…”
A conversation is a team sport, and a conversation is a great platform within which thinking and creativity can flourish. But for this to happen, we need effective communication.
If we constantly interrupt, not only are we announcing that we’re the only player in the team but we’re also contributing to stemming the flow of great thinking and creativity which can include new ideas and problem-solving.
But also, if we listen to others more than we speak we are able to start building effective relationships.
Which brings me to my next point.
Effective communication means greater connection
We’re living in a time where it seems that meaningful human connection and effective interaction are on the wane.
We’re exposed to online meetings, more time in front of the screen, at times social distancing, and more time spent by ourselves.
In other words, we’re spending less and less time physically interacting.
But humans are social species. Whether introverted or extroverted, human connection and interaction are needed for creativity to flourish. We thrive with some level of human connection and interaction.
Have you ever met someone, and immediately felt that there was just a “connection”? Not in a romantic sense, but someone who you could chat easily to, who listened well, and where the conversation flowed effortlessly, someone that you felt you might have a lot in common with? Someone you felt a rapport with.
Rapport and effective communication
There is a commonly used definition for rapport that is, “a friendly harmonious relationship. There’s a mutual agreement, understanding and empathy, that makes communication flow well.”
My experience with building rapport is that it is a connection based on honesty, mutual respect, understanding, and empathy, promoting the contribution of all concerned. Without connection, not much flourishes.
Being able to build rapport with others is an essential life skill as it helps build relationships – but also promotes an environment within which ideas flow freely. It’s important in both our personal and professional lives, because if we’re really connected with someone, they’re seeing the real you and are able to decide whether they’re comfortable being around you or not.
We willingly share information and ideas when we feel comfortable. And for us to feel comfortable around others we need to feel that some semblance of rapport has been created.
I’ve had bosses in the past who I was afraid to share ideas with because I was scared of their reaction – they were critical and insisted that we only followed their ideas.
Not only did I not want to share ideas with them but I didn’t want to be around them, and this resulted in the shutting down of my ability to contribute constructively. Not a healthy office environment.
How can we build rapport and enable effective communication?
According to Emily and Laurence Alison, forensic psychologists and authors of Rapport, the four ways to read people, there are four core pillars needed to create rapport.
In their book, they mention that “the key to effective communication lies in what you do before you open your mouth. It’s careful listening, not smooth-talking that is the key to building a solid rapport.”
(Once again, the importance of listening comes up.)
We know what it feels like when we aren’t honest with someone or when we find out that someone hasn’t been honest with us. Honesty is a non-negotiable when it comes to effective communication but can create challenges, for example, when in a feedback session.
The person receiving the feedback could be highly sensitive and take the message the wrong way so being clear, objective, direct, and calm is a good starting point, but being empathetic towards the other person is crucial.
As (self) awareness is one of the key traits of an effective leader – knowing and understanding the other – enabling effective communication, shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
Being honest, as uncomfortable as it can be, is essential – as being dishonest, or finding out that you’ve been lying has a direct influence on your integrity. As I discussed in my previous article – if your integrity is ever in question the slope is steep and slippery.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird.
And this quote brings me to Empathy.
Empathy can be confused with sympathy. While sympathy is about showing warmth and compassion to the other, empathy is about understanding the other – what they’re thinking and feeling.
It’s not uncommon when someone does something we don’t agree with, that we blame them for doing it because we don’t understand why they did it. Reacting with empathy makes us ask the question, “why did they do it?” instead of “what would I have done in that situation, or why didn’t they do it like I would have done it?”
One of the ways to develop empathy is by taking the time to discover more about the other (Awareness) and to do that we first need to understand ourselves (Self-Aware), as self-awareness is the bedrock of interpersonal skills, and strong interpersonal skills underpin effective communication.
We are all unique as individuals with different values, beliefs, strengths etc and the key to developing empathy is understanding, and being ok with the fact that we are all different.
If we have empathy it contributes to developing rapport as it eliminates the need for everything to be done the way that we would do it, and allows for communication and contribution in line with the other’s values and strengths.
If we have empathy and we understand the other, they feel more comfortable around us which opens up the avenues for sharing, contributing and the free flow of ideas.
When we feel understood, we appreciate it, and it enables effective communication and interaction.
Which leads me to Autonomy.
I have yet to meet someone who loves to be told what to do all of the time.
An authoritative and dictatorial voice seldom attracts a willing audience that isn’t based on fear.
If we are respectful and allow for reflection, the other person starts to feel appreciated and can think more deeply and contribute in their unique way. If we allow for choice to become part of the instructional conversation, then we feel autonomous and that what we offer has value.
But there are circumstances that will dictate otherwise. Let me sketch one out for you…
I do feel that if I’m in a burning building, and a fireman orders me to get out of it as quickly as possible, that I’m not going to be too concerned about being barked at, or feel too upset if he starts forcefully pushing me towards the door. In fact, taking the time to build rapport in that moment will probably be the last thing on my mind. Possibly when I’m thanking him later, I’ll ask if he’s interested in hearing on how I would have done it 😊
Creating bonds and connections isn’t a one-way street where you must do what I tell you. It includes, being respectful and considerate towards each other.
And lastly, we come to Reflection.
Have you ever met someone where all they can talk about is me, me, me?
My holiday, how fit I am, how far I run, what an amazing cook I am, how my proposal was amazing etc, etc, etc?
And then when you finally get a word in, they start looking at their phone, or their eyes glaze over, or they’ve “got to rush off” to their next big meeting.
If so, you’re not alone.
When reflecting on someone’s contribution, by repeating back – without interrupting – the key points of what they have said shows that you are present, interested, and acknowledging that they exist. That’s effective communication.
We all like to be acknowledged and one way that builds rapport is by being interested in what the other is saying, and for that to happen we have to listen actively.
Being asked to repeat something because of misunderstanding is one thing, but being asked to repeat something repeatedly because of non-listening or distraction can annoy the best of us.
Being honest, having empathy, allowing autonomy, and reflecting in conversation are the pillars of building rapport and creating effective communication. And these four pillars not only help make a connection but can be used when giving feedback and dealing with potential conflict.
Building rapport, active listening, and clarity in speaking, all contribute towards effective communication.
As we move into the future where our ability to focus is on the wane, connections are disintegrating and where the world is speeding up exponentially, how we speak, listen and the need to connect is becoming more important by the day.