Leadership Skills – Lesson 5

What is Communication?

When a dog growls, two colleagues talk, or a supervisor sends a memo, information or ideas are passed on to others. The dog may want a strange dog to stay off the property, the colleagues may be sharing experiences about the weekend, or the supervisor may want staff to know about a new company policy.

Communication gives information to others, or helps them understand something. For communication to take place, there must be at least two people involved: a sender (who has the ideas or information) and a receiver (the person who is getting the ideas or information). There can, of course, be more than one receiver.

There must also be a message and some method of communicating. Whether we are talking face to face, sending an e-mail or a letter, or sending a message by Morse code, words are being transmitted or exchanged. These are verbal messages. However, we can also communicate without words, by using certain words, or gestures or body movements. These are non-verbal messages.

When good communication is effective, the receiver gets the message the sender intended. This makes it possible for people to understand one another. When communication is ineffective, the receiver didn’t get the message, or got the wrong message. Poor communication can cause a lot of trouble. It has caused wars. It has caused friends to become enemies. It has put companies out of business.

In order to prevent such dire consequences, we should also understand the reasons why communication breaks down.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting out of your office and listening to what the employees are saying.”
Richard Furlaud, former chair of Pfizer

“Do not summon people to your office. It frightens them. Instead go to see them in their offices. This makes you visible throughout the Agency.”
David Ogilvy

The Elements of Communication

Face-to-Face Communication

As a supervisor, much of your communication with employees will be face-to-face communication. Here are some general rules to be sure your communication is effective:

  • Know what you want to say.
  • Make sure your listeners know why your message is important.
  • Refrain from using polysyllabic terminology. (In other words, use simple words!)
  • Talk the other person’s language.
  • Get the other person talking, so the communication is two-way.
  • Find out what the other person knows so you only tell him/her what they don’t know.
  • Your non-verbal communication should support your verbal communication.
  • Check to make sure the other person has received the correct message.

Tips on Communicating with Employees at Other Locations

Learn to listen.

Saying the right things to the right people at the right time requires good listening skills. Listening helps you decide whether you should get involved or whether you should just listen. Listening helps you learn, so encourage other people to talk. As Larry King said, “When I’m talking I’m not learning anything.”

To draw people out, you have to do a little more than just stop talking yourself. You want to make them feel comfortable, so relax yourself. If you feel a smile is inappropriate, at least look alert and interested. Ask a question and then make supportive sounds or movements as they continue talking. Encourage them to expand on their ideas or opinions.

Getting other people to talk can pay some rich dividends for you. Not only do you learn facts and observations you might not otherwise have known, you are showing the other person they are valued.

Keep the steps for active listening in mind.

To begin the active listening process, stop talking, and invite the other person to give you’re their response or opinion. This is their invitation and without it they may not take part in the conversation.

1) Non-verbal: These are the messages our body sends to others that tell them we are listening, like leaning forward, making eye contact, nodding our head, attending to what they say.

2) Cues: Those short phrases that keep us connected and tell the other person we are still listening. Examples:

  • OK
  • Go on
  • All right
  • You’re kidding!

3) Using paraphrasing, clarifying, and summarizing questions. You ask questions to make sure you understand what is said.

What else do you do to help you be a good listener?

Use Powerful Questions

Another key to drawing people out and to finding the information you need is to develop more skill in phrasing questions.

Closed questions are phrased so they can be answered with “Yes” or “No” or some other short answer, and give you only very specific bits of information. They are similar to going fishing with only a hook, or like answering true and false questions on a school test. While these questions are very good at closing down a conversation, they are decidedly ineffective at drawing people out. Use them when you want to zero in on a specific response or move on.

Open questions on the other hand, cannot be answered with a “Yes” or “No.” These are questions that can give us a great deal of additional information. They are like going fishing with a net, or perhaps answering an essay question on a school test. Open questions encourage a speaker to talk, or to explore a course of action.

Some open questions that often give us additional information include:

  • What do you think we can do about this?
  • What would you like me to stop doing?
  • Would it be helpful if I…?
  • Supposing we were to…?
  • Help me understand where you’re coming from. Pay Attention to Body Language

As supervisors, we must learn to communication our messages by non-verbal means as well as by our words. Our true convictions often show through in our body language, and we unintentionally reveal how we really feel about a person or a situation. Of course, we can also send messages we don’t intend to send, just by crossing our arms when we feel cold, or frowning when we are listening intently to another person speak.

Here are some things to keep in mind about body language:

  • Eyes, eyebrows, and mouth send out the signals that can make a world of difference.
  • People who smile are happier than those who don’t. Smiling releases a chemical in your brain that makes you feel good. It’s a great way to establish a rapport with listeners.
  • Eye contact helps you carry your message to each person in the audience. It builds trust.
  • Learn to speak with your hands. Draw lines in the air, make a point, count on your fingers, and emphasize length and width.
  • Work on appearing sincere and comfortable.
  • Let your hands do what they want to do, as long as they don’t get in your pockets, fiddle with an object, or make obscene gestures to your audience.
  • Your body posture affects your emotions and how you feel determines your posture. If you are confident, happy and ready, your body will show it.

One of the most important things you can do with body language is learn to pick up cues from people that you are making them uncomfortable.

  • Rocking
  • Leg swinging
  • Tapping

If you sensitize yourself to these simple cues, over time, people will have the experience of feeling more relaxed, at ease, and open with you (and to you).

These are the first signals of tension and indicate that the person feels intruded upon or nervous.

If it escalates, these signals are often followed by:

  • Intermittent closing of the eyes
  • Slight tucking of the chin into the chest
  • Shoulder hunching

Basically, learn to watch for these, and then adjust your approach. Sometimes just taking one step back, or ceasing talking and getting the other person to talk to you instead, will be all it takes to ease the tension.

Are there new non-verbal messages you want to develop?