In my seminars on collaborative leadership, I talk about the kind of assumptions that can derail a leader’s effectiveness. These include:
• Assuming that everyone on your team knows why the work they are doing is important (they don’t unless the tie-in to a bigger goal has been clearly stated and reinforced by frequent example).
• Assuming that your team knows why a project was successful (they may not be clear about which aspects were due to strategy and which to lucky circumstance).
• Assuming that your team knows how to fail successfully (they may be more likely to place blame unless you have a team process to examine set-backs for valuable learning opportunities).
• Assuming that people know why you came to a particular conclusion (they won’t unless you let them in on your thinking process).
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• Assuming that everyone on your team feels valued, trusted, and safe (they won’t unless you have created an emotionally nurturing work environment).
• Assuming you have people’s commitment (which is difficult to know unless you ask directly, “Are you with me?”).
But not all assumptions are harmful. In fact, there is one assumption that I advise leaders to always make. You should assume that at least one person didn’t understand what you said. Some of the biggest problems in business communication happen because we believe that we are being clear. We’re not. At least, not to everyone.
Which explains why I was so glad to hear from Bob Berkowitz, a Principal at The Dilenschneider Group, who contacted me with a unique and practical approach to dealing with this issue. He thinks that all of us should become our own “translators.” Here are a few notes from our conversation:
Carol Kinsey Goman: Becoming a translator is an intriguing concept – but what does it mean?
Bob Berkowitz: Over 90% of our conversations are with ourselves, and we speak our personal language fluently. Therefore, we fool ourselves into believing that everyone understands us in the same way. But, everyone is different in the way they hear and perceive things and take in information. Each has a different level of education and background in the subject matter. Even my wife, who knows me better than any person on earth, sometimes misunderstands me because I didn’t do a good job communicating my thoughts to her. If someone who is as close to you as a spouse does not always understand you, imagine how tough it is for others, especially in the business world where often they are strangers. Therefore, you have to constantly “translate” what you mean and you have to do it in a way that is right for the people you are trying to reach.
Goman: One thing I’ve noticed with many of the leaders I coach is that even when they aren’t clearly communicating, their staff rarely says, “I don’t understand.” Instead, people try to guess what the leader really wants.
Berkowitz: Right. So your job as a communicator – especially if you are a leader – is to constantly clarify what you mean. Never take it for granted that your audience understands you. They may be nodding their heads as if they are absorbing your thoughts, they may be taking notes, and they might even be able to feed back to you exactly what you said. All of which means that they heard your words, but not necessarily the intent or meaning of your message. A great interpreter follows up important statements with clarifying phrases such as:
• “Here’s what I mean by that …”
• “Here are the implications of what I’m talking about …”
• “Here’s how I came to this conclusion …”
• “Let me give you an example of (a story about) what I’m saying …”
• “Here’s another way of looking at the situation …”
Goman: Of course, putting ideas into simple, jargon-free words also helps, as does the use of metaphor and analogy to tie new concepts into references that are more familiar. But one of my favorite techniques is one I use when there is a lull in the Q & A portion after a speech. I’ll say: “Here’s a question I am often asked . . .” Then I ask and answer my own question. Would you advise this in other situations?
Berkowitz: Absolutely. It’s a highly empathetic way of communicating that goes even further in clarifying your message. When you ask and answer your own questions, you are putting yourself in the place of those you are trying to reach. What do you want them to know? You might even say something like:
“If I were in your place, I might be wondering . . . what does this really mean (or how does this change things)?”
To improve your leadership effectiveness the next time you chair a meeting, try this: Assume that someone on your team didn’t understand what you just said, and take that extra step to clarify and explain.