“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Leadership Skills for Managers
After spending 17 years in long-term care leadership roles, I learned not to ask an elderly nursing home resident, “How are you?” unless I really wanted an honest answer (and had a comfortable place to sit!).
Communicating seems every bit as automatic to us as walking or breathing.
“How are you?” is as much of a greeting as “Hello“. We expect the response “fine…how are you?” especially from those we don’t know. Very few of us would respond by describing their argument with the head of accounting or last week’s colonoscopy to someone we barely knew. At least, I hope not (eww).
You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello
As leaders, there’s an assumption we are in our roles because we have a certain level of expertise and our goal is to communicate that expertise to others.
We tend to believe that, if we talk enough, our supposedly superior knowledge will shine through like a guiding beacon for others to follow. Ha!
Whether it’s a group of business leaders or spouses in couples counseling, when you ask what the most important characteristic of a good relationship is, the first response is “communication”. However, if you dig just a little bit deeper into how communication is defined, the answers are very different.
When we sense problems in our communication with others, we seem to blame the other person first.
“She only hears what she wants to hear.”
“I see his lips moving but all I hear is ‘blah, blah, blah’.”
“If he’d shut up long enough, he might learn something.”
That’s standard practice with interpersonal problems in general, right? It’s much easier to blame someone else. Taking accountability might mean we have to change and no one wants to do that!
We honestly believe that we take into consideration the feelings of others when we speak. However, when we take a closer look at how we communicate when we are impatient, that is usually not the case, “Don’t give me excuses! Just make sure the report is finished before you leave today!!”
Are we aware of how our communication will be received when speaking with our boss or an important customer? We probably give that considerable thought in advance so that we’ll be successful in getting what we want.
Compare that to our interaction with someone providing a service to us such as a coffee shop barista or office housekeeper. Do we maintain our sense of awareness in those situations?
What do we make up in our minds about our communication with those we know versus those we don’t know?
“She’s wasting my time. I need to go.”
“I can’t believe we’re talking about this again.”
“Why are you mad? It’s your job, buddy.”
We might label someone as a “poor listener” but we may not be aware that, on this day, she’s distracted by thoughts of a seriously ill family member or a pending presentation to the Board of Directors.
What we can do is to pay attention to non-verbal signals like body language and tone of voice.
Whether it’s your colleague in the next cubicle or the food truck vendor, if we’re bringing our attention to those signals, we can empathize with emotions like fear or anger and connect with that. “Jim, you seem distracted this morning. I know that happens to me when something’s weighing on my mind. Anything you want to talk about?”
Although a statement like that to an anonymous server at a restaurant may seem over-the-top, a reasonable substitute might be something like, “Is it always this busy here? You must be exhausted with all this running around tonight.”
Imagine how much more attentive that server will be thanks to your compassion compared to reacting with anger when the food doesn’t arrive fast enough to suit you.
That kind of empathetic communication in a stressful situation has a lingering effect and will likely a) cause that person to pay it forward in a future situation, and b) show up in a better mood the next time he’s faced with similar stressors.
It’s easy to forget that we are distracted by past and future thinking during most our waking hours but, by being aware that others are too, we can be more mindful in our communication.
By checking in with yourself in advance, you can remember that everyone enters into communication in different ways at different times on different days. Just like you, all parties are rarely fully present when entering into a conversation.
That’s mindful awareness.
Mindful communication requires us to be conscious of a number of factors so that we can make the best choices in how we communicate to get the best results.
Let’s go back to the most under-recognized component of mindfulness – “without judgment“.
As we experience negative emotions such as anger, we mindlessly react by judging the people we’re communicating with.
If I’m angry with you because of a past incident, I’m going to bring a negative judgment about you to our conversation even if the current topic is unrelated to past events. We must be aware of that danger in order to negate its effect on our response.
That doesn’t mean we pretend the previous incident didn’t occur. We just have to put our negative emotions aside in order to reduce the risk of unfairly reacting to the current conversation with residual judgments.
Here are some other suggestions to consider in advance of communicating with others:
- Do a quick mental scan of how you’re feeling, what emotions you could be bringing into the conversation and how they might negatively affect our conversation. e.g., it’s been a long day and I’m exhausted and I want this conversation to go quickly so I can get out here.
- Recall how past conversations have gone with this person and clear your mind of preconceived notions that may detract from open communication. e.g., the last time I spoke with Bill, he was bordering on insubordination.
- Don’t sit behind a desk. Get in space that feels at least neutral to all parties involved. There’s no need to create symbolic barriers to further inhibit transparent dialogue, even if the purpose is to deliver disciplinary action.
- Remind yourself to maintain eye contact at all times. Anyone caught checking his or her phone will be taken outside and flogged (preferably before HR finds out)!
We’ll Call It the “Freaky Friday Method”
When you need to communicate something specific to someone, flip the roles in your mind and ask yourself how you would react if you were on the receiving end of what you’re about to say.
The goal is to determine what verbal and non-verbal changes you can make so that the message is better received.
For example, if someone needed to let you know that she expected more participation from you during Department Head meetings, how would you want that phrased to you? What tone of voice would be used?
Stay away from sharing unsolicited advice unless you get permission first, “I have some thoughts I’d like to share but only if that’s ok with you.”
Even in the context of performance evaluations or coaching sessions, lead with an open ended question before riding in on the white leadership horse with your advice, “So we both know that you have an opportunity to improve the collection of accounts receivable that are more than 90 days old. What are some of the options you could try?”
Here are a few other mindful speaking skills:
- Avoid making the same point over and over. By doing so, you are unintentionally communicating that the other person isn’t smart enough to understand you. It’s ok to check in occasionally by asking, “Is this making sense?”
- Be careful with humor. Sometimes it can be beneficial by helping others relax but it can also convey that you’re not approaching the conversation with the degree of seriousness others would like you to have. When in doubt, step lightly, especially with those you don’t know well.
- Sometimes, people are not able to listen to what you have to say unless they are given the opportunity to vent first. It’s fine to provide that opportunity (if it can be done in a professional way) because it increases the odds they’ll be more mentally available to listen to you once they’ve gotten everything off their chest first.
- If you are verbally attacked, do not take the bait. There are few things more tempting than to open up with both barrels when someone lights into you with assaults on your character. Set the example by managing the situation by either politely requiring a more civil and professional tone or, if that doesn’t seem possible, by rescheduling the conversation to a time when emotions aren’t as unstable.
- Most importantly, remember that your goal is mutual understanding and not how well you come across.
After any conversation, close the loop on any commitments you made.
For example, if you said you were going to check into the availability of specific resources, make sure to circle back with that colleague and let them know what you learned.
Oftentimes, we say, “I’ll look into it and get back to you” as a way to placate someone who’s especially emotional about their needs. If we don’t follow-up, trust is eroded and, whether it’s a direct report, customer, supervisor or peer, we can be sure that the perceived lack of concern will be shared many times over.
Respect is a two-way street and blowing someone off is a sure sign of not caring.
If You’re Not Listening, You’re Not Learning
When explaining what communication is, we usually refer to “talking to” someone rather than “listening to” or even “conversing with” because our minds default to a definition that puts talking ahead of listening.
But mindful communication is, at least, equal parts listening and speaking.
Mindful leaders spend much more time listening than talking. Remember the key components of active listening:
- Monitoring the non-verbal cues of body language and tone of voice,
- Not formulating responses in your mind while others are talking (takes a lot of practice),
- Interruptions are off-limits. Wait for a natural break in the discussion to request clarification or to share your perspective. Interrupting is one of the most frequently used, albeit unconscious, tactics to establish dominance over others and should not be tolerated. Where possible, include this in your team’s conduct expectations and hold each other accountable as it occurs.
- Use clarifying questions to demonstrate your engagement in the conversation (e.g., “so what I think I hear you saying is…“), and
- Utilizing your knowledge of the other’s experiences (e.g., introverted; bad experience with authority in previous job) but clearing your mind of assumptions not based in fact (e.g., “she was probably gossiping with others on her team before the meeting“).
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” -Epictetus
And, In the End…
Mindful leadership skills should not be utilized without context. Otherwise, they are just another leadership development, out-of-the-box solution that may not work for the individuals on your team.
Invest time in learning more about those with whom you work. Practice tinkering with how you communicate with those people by taking into account what you’ve learned about them. By doing so, the mindfulness tips described above will start to occur naturally.
This is not a magic pill. Like all mindful leadership skills, it requires repetition but the payoff is better communication, improved trust and engaged team members – common goals for all successful organizations.
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
- When you’re in a rush, how often is the goal of your communication to convey information as quickly as possible without consideration of how the interaction will be perceived? Pay attention the next time that happens and think about how you could be more mindful in the way you approach communication.
- Think of a time when someone delivered information to you in a way that you didn’t appreciate. How would you have done it differently? What changes in your communication can you start making today that will increase the odds that information is better received by those with whom you interact?
- Pick a direct report, a supervisor and a personal friend and write down three characteristics about each of them that are important to consider prior to entering into a conversation with them. How can you apply this exercise to your communication with them and others?
- Pay attention to your encounters with people that you don’t know (e.g., a supermarket cashier, a server at a local restaurant). Without asking, what kinds of emotions might they be feeling and what could you say that might better connect you to them?
- Think about the last time you said to someone “Let me check into that and I’ll get back to you.” Did you follow-up and close that loop? What method could you use to help you follow-up on communication commitments?