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Five Ways That Leaders Can Hone Their Communication Skills

The art of communication is a fine skill to hone. Here’s how to do it right.

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Whether you’re an expert in your field or just starting out, communication is central to getting your job, your work, and even your life in order. It forms the backbone of how we interact with one another in the real world, and in today’s virtual work environment, communication is even more critical. Regardless of whether you are an expert on a topic, if you cannot communicate the things you need to or the things you know, your expertise is likely to be wasted. In fact, communicating well is absolutely central to your success, especially as a leader.

To successfully lead, you must be able to convince, inspire, and motivate in a comprehensive way. Without those skills, your career may become stagnant and stuck. To help you on that path, here are five ways to hone your communication skills in the modern era.

Know Your Audience

Knowing who your audience is and what you are trying to persuade them to do or change is a critical first step in honing your communications. To be an effective leader, you must be able to tailor your messages to your audience. Without understanding what challenges you might face from your audience, you cannot customize a specific message to cut through their mental clutter.

Say, for example, you have to communicate that your company needs to make some cuts. Your first audience is a room full of accountants responsible for the company’s financial health. Since it is their responsibility to keep the company financially sound, they are more likely to be receptive to the cuts you plan to make and less likely to push back. Whereas when you have to communicate cuts to your team, there is a higher probability of pushback because the cuts will affect the way they work. When you communicate the cuts to your team, you will likely have to tailor your message in a way that will help reduce some of the anticipated pushback you might receive. By knowing your audience, you can know what changes you might need to make to your communication style and process.

Learn to Practice Active Listening

Active listening is a skill that must be developed and worked on over time. In general, we are not born as active listeners. Most people listen with half their attention, filtering what they hear through their own biases, experiences, and background to tease out meaning. This kind of listening can cause a myriad of misunderstandings, lack of clarity, and long-term interpersonal problems.

Research suggests that when we listen to others, we only retain roughly 25 to 50 percent of what they communicate. So, if you speak to someone for 10 minutes, they are likely to retain less than half of what you have said. That’s a significant factor, especially when scaled up to longer speeches. 

Active listening, on the other hand, is a skill in which you focus your whole attention on what is being communicated and actively engage with the speaker to clarify points, dig deeper on topics, and ask questions in order to achieve a shared goal. Here’s how to practice and hone your active listening skills:

  1. Give your undivided attention to the person communicating. Focus your attention on the person speaking. Put all other distractions aside and allow them the space to speak about what they want to discuss. Ideally, you should put away your phone (and switch it to silent), turn off your computer screen so you don’t become distracted by emails, and turn off any audio that may be present in the room. Imagine that you are listening to the President of the United States and that he is speaking directly to you.
  2. Don’t plan a rebuttal while you listen. One of the main downfalls we have when it comes to listening is that we are continually planning a response or a rebuttal. You’ve probably experienced this more acutely when you are in the midst of a conflict with someone you love. Listen to the person speaking and then you can form a response.
  3. Pay attention to body language. Active listening doesn’t only happen with our ears. It happens with our eyes, too. You can tell a lot about what is really going on with a speaker by watching their body language as they speak. Are they crossing their arms? Are they looking away or down? Are they leaning forward or back as they speak to you? All of these things can provide clues as to what the speaker is really trying to communicate, whether it’s frustration, urgency, or concern.
  4. Use your body language to reflect that you are listening. Reflecting that you are listening by communicating using your body language and small verbal cues can help make the speaker feel that they are being heard. Nodding your head, uttering an “uh-huh” now and then, making eye contact, and using facial expressions can all help communicate that you are actively engaged in the conversation and listening to what is being said. 
  5. Ask clarifying questions. While you are actively listening, questions about what the speaker is saying or communicating might come up. In some cases, it pays to have a notepad nearby to write down any questions you’d like to ask when the speaker is finished. Once the speaker wraps up, go back to your notes and ask any clarifying/reflective questions that might have come up. Clarifying questions like “Can you explain what you mean by ‘successful growth’?” or “What did you mean by ‘streamlining,’ specifically?” can help you get to the heart of what the speaker is trying to communicate. 
  6. Don’t interrupt. Being interrupted is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have. It often derails your train of thought, disrupts your communication flow, and hijacks the conversation. Interrupting is disrespectful to the person who is trying to communicate, and it does a disservice.

There’s a lot more to discuss around active listening, but by improving your skills, you can become a more adept leader with the ability to persuade, communicate, and negotiate more effectively.

Become a Storyteller to Create Meaning

As humans, we are hardwired to be more receptive to stories than lectures. While executives tend to love to go deep on data and information, most of your audiences won’t need that level of context. In fact, it’s preferable (from a persuasive point of view) to simplify some of the data and information to make it more digestible for a wider audience. By using the tools of storytelling to communicate your message, you can engage more of your audience’s attention and help your information resonate better with them. 

The best way to leverage storytelling is to relate what you are communicating to a personal story. It’s also a good idea to use the terms “us” and “we,” rather than “you” and “I” when you are communicating something that might be difficult. Using inclusive terms can help the audience relate better to your message.

Additionally, telling a personal story (or any story for that matter) as a leader makes you seem more vulnerable and human. Your employees are likely to relate to you more if you are honest and open about your experiences, and your message is likely to have more impact.

Let Your Body Language Do the Talking

As I mentioned above, body language is a powerful communicator of what is actually going on inside someone’s mind as they speak to you. The same goes for when you are the speaker. If you are open, warm, and accepting with your body language, people will be more likely to be receptive to whatever you are communicating. If you are closed, aggressive, and hunkered down with your body language, it’s possible that your message won’t be received well.

A 25-year veteran of the FBI wrote a book years ago about how to read (and manage) your own body language to communicate the way you want to. He notes that when speaking to a large audience, you want to come across as confident. To do so, he suggests you lift your chin, use open hand gestures, and—when you do bring your hands together—use steepled fingers, rather than interlaced fingers. This communicates that you are confident and not hiding the truth.

Seek Feedback

The only way to truly improve your communication skills as a leader is to continually seek feedback from your peers and employees. Feedback can be difficult to take in because we are egocentric animals, and it can be hard to hear that we are imperfect. Yet getting feedback from those around you is the only way to continually improve your communication skills.

Other people can give you important notes about how you communicate so you know where you need to focus your attention to improve your skills. Taking the feedback and using it to change the way you work and behave is the one way to ensure that you improve your communication skills, regardless of how challenging this can be.

As with any skill, the key way to improve your communication skills is through practice. You may not get it right the first time, but if you keep iterating, learning, growing, and being open to feedback, you’re sure to become an exceptionally skilled communicator and leader, securing your career path for the future.

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