One of the hallmarks of an excellent leader is superior communication skills. Without the ability to listen, speak, and write effectively, leaders will find themselves frustrated by employees who seem not to follow directions well and disliked by individuals who feel like they are never heard.
Great leaders understand that the ability to communicate is not developed overnight. Communication is a skill that individuals must continually work at over a lifetime to become and remain effective, especially since much of the work depends on reading other people and understanding their needs. Below are some key tips that leaders should keep in mind as they strive to improve their communication skills.
Listen attentively and carefully.
Effective communication depends more on attentive listening than eloquent speaking. In some ways, the art of listening is being lost as communication becomes increasingly electronic, and text replaces inflection, intonation, eye contact, and other nonverbal forms of communication. Even worse, the constant bombardment of electronic notifications keeps us distracted as we listen to the people physically in our presence. However, great leaders know that they can glean a great deal of information from the nonverbal cues that a speaker gives. By following a person’s words closely, listeners can pick up on the small details that others may miss. These details can lead to great business deals or insight on how to manage an employee more effectively.
One way to practice careful listening is to try to be more empathetic. This strategy means trying to feel the emotions that the other person is conveying. When the other person is excited, try to feel excited. When the other person is irritated, try to feel irritated. This strategy is easier said than done and it requires a great deal of energy expenditure, but it helps build a real connection to the speaker.
Learn to read body language.
One of the key aspects of nonverbal communication is body language. When it comes to leadership, learning body language is critical because it can say much more than words. If a person’s body language does not align with the words they speak, typically the body’s message is the one to be trusted. Understanding body language can help leaders identify when internal conflicts exist or when people might be lying. Clearly, there are many advantages of being able to identify the sentiments that are not immediately apparent in a person’s words. From judging honesty during an interview to judging someone’s confidence in what they are saying, learning to read body language will serve leaders well throughout their careers.
Even more important is the ability to project the right body language. When leaders learn to read body language, they become more proficient in controlling their own body language to give off the message they intend. Body language can help people seem more confident and more honest, both of which serve leaders well.
Curb overly critical language.
In many ways, a leader’s position is one of criticism. A leader must identify problems and create a game plan for dealing with them in an effective manner. However, it is important that this critical eye not influence the ways in which leaders communicate to their employees. Leaders must pay careful attention to their word choices and how they frame an idea. One way of addressing an issue can leave employees feeling deflated and unmotivated, while another can have them excited to tackle a new challenge.
For example, suppose that a sales team has performed admirably on all fronts except one. Praising the team for its success is undercut when the leader follows it up with, “But we are still missing the mark here.” Simply using the word “but” puts a negative spin on the whole conversation and makes it seem like the other achievements are cheapened because the performance was not perfect. A better way to frame this conversation would be following the praise with something like, “Now let’s think of ways to get the numbers here just as good.” This makes the shortcoming feel less like a failure and more like the next challenge that the leader is sure the team can overcome.
Prepare conversations in advance.
When leaders know that they are going to talk to people, there is no rule that says the conversation must be improvised. In fact, it’s beneficial to prepare for important discussions in advance by taking time to think about phrasing and word choice. Leaders should understand that people do not always listen attentively, as a general rule, so effective communication requires speaking clearly and plainly. When speech is littered with jargon or complicated vocabulary, people tend to lose interest and, worse, the speaker may come across as arrogant or out of touch. Taking the time to prepare means thinking about word choice and figuring out the best way to deliver a particular message.
The other benefit of preparing in advance is pre-empting the objections and questions that are likely to arise. When leaders have thoughtful answers already prepared, they come across as confident and will win the trust of their employees.