The #1 skill you as a leader need to focus on improving is your communication skills!
Why do I say that when there are so many skills taught in leadership development courses and discussed in boardrooms across the world? Because every other leadership skill, whether it’s delegation, improving accountability, improving hiring or employee performance or any other skill that leaders need for day-to-day management of the team or interacting with clients, vendors, partners and others, all relate back to communication. Everyday leaders have multiple opportunities to interact with other human beings, and how they interact (which goes back to communication skills) will have a major impact on their success, or failure as a leader.
Most everyone I know thinks communicating is easy.
In fact, most of them believe it’s the other person, not them, that is the problem. If only they would listen, if only they would do what I told them, if only…If only is a phrase I hear all the time. The reality is that communicating isn’t as easy as we think, and there are so many nuances that we overlook, ignore or simply don’t know to consider.
Assess Your Communication Skills
Let’s start with a series of questions for you to answer about your communication skills, as a way to assess your current skills.
Answer these questions about yourself with yes or no.
- Communicate information clearly, completely and accurately
- Create an environment of open, honest communication
- Am a good listener; ask questions to ensure understanding
- Actions are consistent with words
- Do not dominate conversations or group meeting; solicit opinions of others
- Avoid certain discussion longer than I should or altogether
- When someone can’t do something, I jump in with my advice
- When I finish a discussion with someone, I check to see if the other person understands what we have discussed and they are committed to the course of action
- Frequently my conversations begin with one topic but by the end, we are discussing another topic altogether
- Discussions often do not end in resolution; they just end
Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a beginning. What if you had everyone in your organization take the time to answer the questions in this communication skills exercise, both about themselves and you? Would their responses be in line with yours, or would they be fairly different? I’m betting the latter as most of us don’t see ourselves as others see us.
What should you be doing then in order to improve your communication skills?
Listen like you have never listened before
It all starts with listening. If we aren’t listening we will miss the nuances is the other person’s tone or specific words they use that are often meaningful, what they may not be saying and the emotions behind the words, not simply the words themselves. We might even miss the entire message.
Ask questions and more questions
I’ve said it before but most human beings simply do not ask enough questions. We listen (or think we do), make assumptions about what they are saying (or worse make assumptions or have judgements even before they say anything) and then act.
Don’t avoid difficult conversations
I know it’s easier to avoid the difficult conversations…performance discussions, telling a customer something they don’t want to hear…discussing anything the other person does not want to hear, but I promise you avoiding these conversations is a bad decision. The problem does not go away nor does the conversation get easier.
Learn to say no
Saying no is not easy. Instead of saying no we ignore, don’t commit or commit but don’t follow through. Do these seem like great outcomes to you? As leaders you have to learn to say no and understand that saying no doesn’t mean you are heartless or unfeeling, it just means that for any number of reasons you can’t honor their request.
Hold others accountable to their commitments
Accepting excuses or reasons why someone didn’t follow through on their commitment leads to chaos. Of course, there are circumstances beyond someone’s control but most often this is not the case when someone misses a deadline or handles a project poorly. Allowing for excuses creates a culture whereby no one feels they need to be accountable. They learn that accountability isn’t a requirement and coming up with excuses is acceptable.
Now that you have read these five communication skills to focus on improving, here are two exercises to practice to improve your communication skills.
1. This exercise is to identify when you are really listening. Really listening means not simply hearing the words but listening to the whole person. Work with a partner or a group of people.
One person talks about a problem they’d like to solve. Listen for content, emotion and intent. When the first person is done, the others discuss what they heard. Then switch roles or have someone else in the group speak, and repeat the exercise.
2. We get what we tolerate. People do not repeat behavior unless it is rewarded. That’s true whether it’s poor performance or poor communication.
Identify 3-6 behaviors that you are tolerating as a team (or with an individual) and 2-4 that you are tolerating in other team members (or in the company as a whole). What needs to change and what will lead to success? What communication skills need to improve in order for behaviors to change?
Focusing on improving your communication skills isn’t a sometimes thing. It isn’t something that you think about only when there is a problem. Great leaders understand that having great communication skills is what moves an organization towards success or interferes with it achieving the goals.