Friday, April 30, 2010

Seven communication tips an effective leader must have

“When I send a man to buy a horse, I don’t want to be told how many hairs the horse has in his tail. I wish only to know the points”, said Abraham Lincoln. Effective communication calls for painstaking search, selection and stringing of picture-building words.

* Empathise with the audience
Leaders who operate aloof of the people, pass the buck but keep the bucks and look for scapegoats, can’t use communication for persuasive end. If you didn’t identify with the problem, the workforce would perceive your motivation as condemnation and seek defence.

Walter Dill Scott, the former president of Northwestern University, observed that: “Every idea, concept, or conclusion which enters the mind is held as true unless hindered by some contradictory idea.” Thus, if one grain of contradictory idea is allowed in the gambit of a message the chance of its acceptance dips.

For example, if your audience is moved to say: “No Sir, we aren’t totally at fault” at the beginning of your talk, you have moved them into a condition of rejection. That is why the world’s famous master of oratory, Dale Carnegie, in his bestselling book, Effective Public Speaking, advised communicators to keep their audience yes-minded. One way of doing this is to launch your message with a common point of view. This is the wisdom America’s celebrated president, Abraham Lincoln, often adopted. “My way of opening and winning an argument,” revealed Lincoln, “is to first find a common ground of agreement.”

Be wary of buck-passing when discussing a problem or sharing a challenge. Tactical collectivism in communication helps galvanise group cooperation by neutralising opposition. Don’t look for scapegoats if you want to turn your workforce into change agents.

* Express yourself to impress your audience
You must express your mind in such a way that your audience is impressed and moved to do your bidding. To do this, you must demonstrate conviction and faith by your tone and flaunt enthusiasm by your manner. You must sound sure before you can assure your audience. Let your voice ring with contagious enthusiasm. Dale Carnegie advised that: “if you would impress an audience, be impressed yourself”. Your attitude to your own message will determine your audience’s attitude to it. Unless you are sufficiently motivated and can show it, you will never be able to motivate others. So, as you speak or write, be earnest. Stir up yourself. Keep your hairs up.

* Employ the appropriate language
Clarity is the first law in leadership communication. Choose words that say exactly what you mean and can appeal to your audience’s emotions without throwing up semantic blur. Often, when communication fails to catch, it’s because the audience don’t comprehend the message or they aren’t pinched by it owing to inappropriate diction.

Carnegie’s book, Effective Public Speaking suggests using concrete, familiar words that create pictures. People are soon put off by colourless phraseology and bland abstract expressions that feed listeners’ souls with boredom.

Let your words conjure images. Send your audience into dreaming. Massage their imagination. Abraham Lincoln was a master at this. Hear his objection to the long, complicated reports he received daily at the White House: “When I send a man to buy a horse, I don’t want to be told how many hairs the horse has in his tail. I wish only to know the points”. How visual! His words call up pictures and stick up like glue.

William Strunk Jr, in his book, The Elements of Style, wrote: “…The greatest writers … are effective largely because they deal in particulars … Their words call up pictures”. The French philosopher, Alain, said: “An abstract style is always bad. Your sentences should be full of stones, metals, chairs, tables, animals, men and women”. Effective communication calls for painstaking search, selection and stringing of picture-building words.

* Expect feedback
Communication is an exchange, not a monologue. As a process, it isn’t complete and fulfilling until the receiver has given his response to the message of the sender. You can’t be sure that your message has been received and understood if you received no response. Many times, however, leaders don’t pause for their subordinates to respond to their communications before they close the talk. Later, they wonder why the workforce doesn’t behave as envisaged.

Without feedback, communication is reduced to a give; but the giver may never know what impact his “gift” has made on the receiver. “The link of feedback”, writes Prof Anthony D’souza of the Haggai Institute, “completes the chain of communication”.

One of the major factors of communication failure is the neglect of feedback. The boss issues an instruction, growls at the end, “Have you got that?” and ends the talk without waiting for the addressee’s reply and reaction!
Such communication only results in frustration as staff scoot off to do what they feel is the leader’s directive – only to end up making painful mistakes.

I agree we all do this and seem to get by, especially in minor daily leadership routine. But where a specific far-reaching change is our goal, there must be plentiful interactive communication. Leadership communication for change thrives on negotiation. The leader must lay out his vision, allow some haggling, and close the deal with the people’s “aye”.

Feedback, however, may be misleading. Subordinates may hide their feelings and give the impression that they are in agreement with the leader’s views, especially if they fear a different opinion might offend the leader.

Therefore, to receive accurate feedback you must do three things. One, you must desire it. Let the workforce know you sincerely cherish their feelings and views about any communications they receive from you.

Two, you must demand it. Don’t just speak to or speak with. Ask the group or person what they think about what you’re saying. Or build feedback promptings into the message. For example, in sharing a vision for the organisation’s expansion, you might share your plans inviting your supervisors’ contributions.

You might say: “I can see it’s time we re-invented our organisation to maintain our share of the market. I’m looking at our brands and sales outlets, our marketing and customer retention strategies. All seem out of tune with the changing landscape and are crying for overhauling … Or what do you think? …”

But, if your staff know that you’re averse to contrary opinions, they would shy from giving any. Therefore, the third thing you must do is demonstrate your sincerity about listening to opinions of others.

To listen effectively, however, you must keep an open-mind, avoid prejudice, separate ideas from factual details, keep the man and the message separately, and avoid speculative cut-ins. When listening to your subordinates, just listen.

* Expel the barriers
No matter how skilful a leader is in communication, he wouldn’t influence many people by it unless he removes certain barriers. These are inhibitions that limit the power of communication as a weapon of organisational influence. The barriers are associated with the sender, the channel and the audience respectively. Details on these barriers can be found in the relevant literature; only an outline of them will be attempted here.

The sender (the leaders) must avoid wrong attitude. Don’t be judgmental, hostile, touchy, impatient, rash, proud, domineering and vindictive. Otherwise, your audience may accept and treat your message with deception, pessimism and disbelief.

Argument is another barrier. Avoid it with your subordinates as much as possible. For, you may win the points but lose the person. Also, watch against these: information overload, illogical presentation, abstract language, and ambiguous diction. Above all, in case of inter-personal communication, ensure that your verbal and non-verbal cues rhyme.
For example, don’t say “Well done” with a frown; or “Is there any way I can help?” in a sarcastic tone. For channel-related barriers, the leader should ensure that the medium is functioning well.

A malfunctioning system not only hinders smooth passage of the message, but may also distort meaning. Moreover, the channel and the message should match. Inappropriate channels can diminish the intrinsic power of a message.

Finally, the audience–related barriers: these are barriers the receiver may deliberately or inadvertently erect. Three of such barriers are explained by what is called the “Selectivity Theory”.

First, there is selective exposure by which people choose which communication they would receive or reject. Second, there is selective perception by which people choose to understand some communication and misunderstand others. Your workers may adopt selective perception if they see they can’t practise selective exposure.

The third is selective retention by which people choose to retain in their memory certain messages they like, and wipe off their minds those they detest. If your workers choose to forget your message, the chance of influencing them in any way is nil.
However, audience–related barriers can be removed by creating and adopting appropriate working climate and applying the basic communication rules we have been discussing.

The road to effective communication has no short-cut. But those who keep learning and practising will get there.

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