We have all read a great deal of content on this topic offering recommendations and formulae on aspects of communication, from non-verbal communication to message structure, body language and just about everything in between.
Yet we can be sure of three things: no two business leaders are the same, no two contexts are the same and no two audiences are the same, be they individuals, teams or otherwise.
‘Excellence is Idiosyncratic’
In their excellent article* entitled The Feedback Fallacy, published in the March-April 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explain that excellence is idiosyncratic: ‘Each person’s version of it is uniquely shaped and is an expression of that person’s individuality’. In other words, we cannot all take the same template, apply it and expect to get similarly excellent results. What works for one person may not work for another, even given the same context and audience. Each of us wonderfully complex human beings builds on our own unique life experience and develops ways of doing things that are as different as we each are, with results that tend to plot out as normal distribution curves. So what should business leaders infer from this to become more effective communicators?
Start with self-awareness
Applying this line of thought to effective communication supports the notion that a great place to start is to develop our self-awareness, for example about how we feel most comfortable or equally, most challenged when communicating.
I once coached a senior leader who was required to make quarterly presentations in a formal context. They freely admitted that they did not feel comfortable working from pre-prepared material and also believed that when they did so, they did not engage their audiences as effectively as when they spoke spontaneously. Yet they felt the context demanded it. I challenged why their preferred approach and this context were incompatible: in other words, why couldn’t they play to their preferences and make their quarterly presentations more spontaneously. Long story short, we evolved an approach whereby they could. The resulting approach might not suit everyone, yet it certainly suited this individual and likely made their communication much more effective by acknowledging their idiosyncrasies.
Be curious about our own and others’ preferences
We will each hold a host of conscious and unconscious preferences regarding how we like to communicate and be communicated to. Absent self-awareness, these can derail our best efforts to communicate effectively: our preference to go into extensive detail may ‘lose’ a team comprised of people who prefer ‘the big picture’, for example.
Another CEO I once coached complained that their Chairman simply wouldn’t engage with the detail that the CEO needed them to understand. The key was in this last phrase: the CEO needed them to understand the detail to satisfy their own needs, not the Chairman’s. The Chairman was quite happy to reach decisions without the fine detail and indeed, chose to do so.
This difference in preferences was creating an unhelpful tension between them. Effective communication to engage the Chairman would require the CEO to develop more awareness of their own and others’ preferences. This needn’t be complicated: one way of establishing how another person prefers to be communicated with is simply to ask them!
Be willing to be humble
In the same article referred to above, the authors describe the ‘idiosyncratic rater effect’ which essentially means that more than half of our rating of someone else for a given competency says more about us than them.
This suggests that asking for feedback on the efficacy of our communication or otherwise may not provide reliable input. A much more effective strategy is to ask each person what was their experience of our communication: what did they feel and what worked best for them. After all, as Sue Knight, author of NLP at Work points out: ‘The meaning of communication is its effect’.
This is not asking for a rating. It is much more straightforward as each of us knows what our experience is and will find it simpler to explain that than to rate someone against an abstract concept such as effective communication. We are showing respectful curiosity about the effect of our communication on others, in the full expectation that the answers will vary from one person to the next.
Develop your own unique style
What we do with the answers will be as unique as each of us. If each answer raises our self-awareness a notch, then pretty quickly we will be on the way to honing our wonderfully idiosyncratic, unique and increasingly effective model of business communication.
If you’re struggling to communicate within your business, you may benefit from business coaching from Planned Ascent. Book your introductory call to find out how we could help you to communicate more effectively with colleagues, customers and peers, and get the most out of your business.