Question: What is the most important leadership skill?
Answer: Knowing how to communicate.
Why? Because leading is about relationships.
Question: What is most talked about in making or breaking any relationship?”
Answer: Knowing, or not knowing, how to communicate.
I’m a good communicator and at risk of sounding a little full of myself, I’ll say it’s one of my best leader things. Getting good at it took practice and tenacity. It used to be pretty high on my list of “needs improvement”.
I remember thinking right before I got married, “we’ve got this communication thing down; we’re ahead of that game.” It felt so true. We talked and laughed and planned and painlessly resolved our few disagreements throughout a ridiculously brief courtship (what were we thinking?) and first year or so of marriage. Maybe someone tried to tell us, but what I didn’t realize at the time is it doesn’t take a sophisticated set of skills to communicate well during the la-la gooshy haze of early love.
As the inevitable work of relationship maintenance sets in, a whole different set of skills is required. No matter what I originally believed, we didn’t have well-developed communication skills, like patient listening, techniques like “I just heard you say…”, asking clarifying questions, remaining dispassionate, and negotiating to name a few. I didn’t know communication was our biggest problem until well after our divorce.
I realized post-divorce, when the experience of having lived through it made me wiser, we had retreated into our respective personality driven communication comfort zones when life got complicated. He was a thinker and I was a decision maker. Early on as graduate students with no kids, our communication didn’t have to be very sophisticated. We talked about where to live, what we could afford at the grocery, whether to go a party or not, and had a variety of political, social, and religious world view conversations on which we were largely compatible. It was understood I would make many of the day to day decisions and he would have the time to think, write and be academic.
Later when things got more complicated — kids, career track job, buying a house — and the rosy glow of first stage gooshy love tempered, he was still a thinker and I was still a decision maker. Instead of being complimentary well fitting pieces of the whole, these traits started working one against the other. Over time, his thinking became wasted time in my eyes and my decision making represented how I didn’t include him in the direction our family was going. But we didn’t actually talk about it.
What could this possibly have to do with leadership? Everything. Communication has everything to do with leadership and because leadership has everything to do with relationships. The same patterns emerge. When business is rocking along happily, good work delivering the right mission, organizational goals being met and the bottom line looks good, talking about it all day-to-day isn’t very complicated.
When I was first in my current position, our organization was quite a bit smaller but well established and respected by our partner agencies. I’d been there a couple of years in a different role and had lots of time to develop relationships with the management team. We were a mix of strong and quirky and wise, if not wiseass, personalities. Certainly there were bumps, but not much different than early dating. You want to be there, you’re getting along, all parties are invested in moving forward. Someone says something out of turn or doesn’t communicate all the needed details of a problem timely, it’s expected early on so forgivable.
Like all relationships, as we got to know each other better, the good, the bad, and the ugly details of our personalities emerged. Along with our personalities came our communication styles. Those included moderately sarcastic, maternal/directive, funny, self-deprecating, straightforward and me…a little impatient, a little over-reactive and always able to tell a story, often leading us directly into the weeds. Over time, the sarcasm, nostalgic of how I tried to be funny in high school, became irritating. The maternal advice giving which had seemed warm started sounding only bossy. The self-deprecating sounded attention seeking and the straightforward sounded a little grumpy. My impatient listening, which may have seemed more forgivable before, started to feel like “does she ever really listen?” My overreactions, never really enjoyable, were a thing to be endured and my storytelling, while usually to illustrate a point, became a bad use of time.
So, as our relationships aged, the inevitable work of relationship maintenance set in. We liked each other and functioned well enough day to day but we didn’t always have the best communication skills for problem-solving or general irritation with each other. These skills, as referenced before in talking about my marriage-then-divorce, include patient listening, using techniques like “I just heard you say…”, asking clarifying questions, remaining dispassionate, and negotiating to name a few. The stakes aren’t quite as high at work as they are in a marriage or another personal partnership, but they’re still pretty high.
There’s no magic communication bullet. There’s no single retreat or exercise to teach a team how to function as a perfect communication network. There’s trial and error, give and take, practice, the inevitable occasional apology and do over. Like all relationships, the better your team communicates, the more successful your organization will be. Generally not a fan of do-this and don’t-do-this lists, here I’m making an exception.
Communication: Do It Better.
- Use a calm voice. No super fast, cryptic or raised voice talking. Leaders shouldn’t be scary.
- Practice keeping your mouth closed while other people are talking. If they see you take that breath and open your mouth, they know you want to interrupt them.
- Repeat back “I think I heard you say…. Is that correct?” if you aren’t sure what someone is trying to say or if the situation is charged and you don’t want to risk hearing “that’s not what I said” later. This may seem a little formulaic or awkward, but it’s a tried and true communication technique.
- If you’ve been accused of sounding harsh, plant a smile on your face before you start talking. It will absolutely change the way you come across.
- Take notes. This is an essential part of communication for me. I know I won’t forget what someone said because I’m listening so well. Then the 43 next things happen and I cannot remember the details of what was said or worse, how I said I would follow up.
- Close a conversation down before it gets out of control if you see it going there. It’s not difficult to say something like this: “I know we aren’t finished with this, but emotions have gotten too high. Everyone needs to take a break and we’ll pick it back up at 2:00 (or tomorrow, or whatever seems appropriate).”
- Ask questions. Whether you’re trying to fix something or learn about something or present something, there’s never a downside to asking questions. If it’s a problem, there will almost always be more information than whatever you’re first told. If you’re trying to learn about something, the more information the better. If you’re presenting new information, invite questions and ask questions like “does this make sense?”
- Be snarky. It’s disrespectful.
- Talk over someone else. It’s rude. If you have to manage a conversation because someone is off-topic or has been talking far too long, you may have to raise your hand and gently interrupt, but in general, don’t talk over people.
- Use words like “I’m the boss” or “This is how it’s going to be”. There is no faster way for the people in the room to feel unimportant. Those words do not reflect strong leadership. Even if you have to deliver an unwelcome message, essentially in the realm of “This is how it’s going to be”, you can say, “We have to talk about a new procedure and it really isn’t flexible. I’m pretty sure most or all of you won’t love it, but let me explain what’s going on.”
- Tell stories not yours to tell. Don’t be the office gossip. Don’t be the person everyone knows will give away information just because they can.
In summary, speak kindly and calmly, with authority but without arrogance. Be clear. Listen. Consider. Ponder. Use your words for good. Lead on.