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9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Poor communication sucks the life out of organisations. Many teams are full of uncomfortable issues, awkward misunderstandings and confusing meetings where everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going on. This leads to frustration, reduced trust, reduced respect and reduced sense of each other’s competency. It leads to suspicion about whether real intentions match stated intentions and it generated lots of unnecessary stress.

I’ve enjoyed reading through some great blogs and books on leadership and communication. In the spirit of sharing and to help my own learning, I’d like to suggest an initial 9 ideas for leaders that you can use to transform communication. Do you agree or disagree with these? Can you improve on them? Please do comment and share.  I’d love to hear your ideas, challenges and reflections. I’ve included links to some of my reading at the bottom of this blog.

1. Approach with a spirit of respect, curiosity and enquiry
Your mental state at the start of the conversation is vital. Note and acknowledge your own emotional state while focusing on your curiosity about what the final solution might look like. Be prepared to learn something about (and potentially to change) the assumptions you’re bringing, and to learn more about the other person and their context. Avoid bringing a laundry list of ideas to impose. Imagine a blank space in which you will create a way forward, where the other person will also bring some building blocks and some ideas.

2. Don’t fluff, don’t pussy-foot, don’t ease-in
Good leaders build and maintain trusting relationships, but this doesn’t stop them getting to the heart of an issue. Fear of causing stress can make us spontaneously water down or ‘fluff’ the discussion of challenging facts, or spend far too long ‘easing in’ or ‘pussy-footing around’ a challenging conversation so that the point gets lost. Even though the intention was to maintain the relationship the other person will probably realise you’re not saying what you really think and this leads to suspicion and lack of trust and, ultimately, does more harm than good. Prioritising short-term emotional comfort over long-term goals and genuine, trusting relationships is damaging, and can lead to watering down expectations/challenge which, ultimately, harms everyone in the organisation. However, the flip side is that systematically creating insecurity and reducing trust will also lead to organisation breakdown! Great conversations aim to maintain and build relationships while addressing challenges and moving things forwards.

3. Check your assumptions, bring your view as just one possibility
The relationship with the other person is very important too! Respect and understanding can be built together when you check your assumptions about the situation. Simply starting by saying “I’ve made some assumptions here and I would like to check them with you” invites the other person to contribute and shows you are open to listening. Maintain your alertness to your assumptions throughout the conversation and try and discuss them openly.

4. Restate and summarise
Every element of a conversation is being interpreted and heard differently by each party. We bring our own feelings and understanding and we’re constantly reinterpreting what we hear to fit our own mental models of the world. To avoid the worst of this, use phrases such as ‘I’d like to pause and double check I’ve understood what you mean’ or ‘Can I summarise what you’ve said as’. Follow this with a question like ‘Have I captured the key points you were making or is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented?’ Invite the other person to summarise too, e.g. ‘I don’t know how clear I’m being – please could you play back what I’ve just said to make sure we’re on the same page and help me ensure I’m not being confusing?’

5. Be alert to your emotional cues
Every time you get a little burst of adrenaline you feel it in your stomach, you may feel yourself going red, and you may feel your muscles tense. This typically happens when you get an emotional ‘fight or flight’ reaction within the conversation. Use these as clues to unspoken assumptions or issues you’re bringing to the table. When you notice this reaction then you also need to work twice as hard to check assumptions, listen openly and check for understanding as the adrenaline will be working against your ability to think logically and openly. This commonly happens when the other person says something that threatens our own feelings of competency, our safety or our social standing. If necessary, pause the conversation. ‘I had an emotional reaction to that last question/idea which makes me realise that I am worried about X’ or ‘I’ve realised I got a bit tense, can we resume [in a few minutes]/[later today] so that I can make sure I’m listening openly?’ or ‘When you said that it made me feel tense – I’m reflecting on why and I think I’m worried that…’

6. Check their assumptions too
Not only are you bringing assumptions to the conversation, the other person is too. Questions that the other person asks may not always be the ones that are addressing the real issue, only tangential issues. They may also be forming assumptions behind what you’re saying that may not be true. This is a real test of your leadership qualities as some of their assumptions may be questioning your competency or character – be very careful aware of your emotional reactions and be open to exploring and learning about yourself. Use questions like ‘so that I can answer your question better, could you explain why you’re asking it?’ and ‘do you think there’s an important or difficult issue here that we’re not talking about? I’m really open to hearing your thinking even if it’s critical of me’. By showing you listen and making yourself a little vulnerable you can learn a lot and build trust. It can also raise your standing as a genuinely respected leader rather than having to rely on ‘hard’ power and risk reducing trust.

7. Make space – don’t fill all the conversations space, ask questions and wait
When you’re anxious or stressed you tend to talk more and listen less. As a leader you have more ‘presence’ and ‘weight’ in the conversation than you often realise. Leave silences at the end of the other person’s contributions. This allows you to be more thoughtful, and allows the other person to add other points they may have forgotten. Follow questions with longer pauses than normal. Imagine that each question creates a space between the two of you – don’t shut down this space by pushing your own answers in. Open body language, e.g. relaxed stance and palms up, can help create this conversational space. Sometimes you can explicitly acknowledge the space – e.g. ‘in this space here between us we’re going to create the solution to this – what does it look like?’

8. Be careful with suggestions, label their ‘power’
Your inherent power as a leader can overwhelm the other person’s ideas and suggestions. Every time you say ‘what about ….’ then it can come across as ‘I want us to do this and I will be annoyed if I don’t get my way’. You need to preface and caveat every suggestion with clarity about whether it is a firm idea that should be accepted, or merely a contribution that can be ignored or changed. Use phrase such as ‘This is just a tentative suggestion to build on – feel free to reject it’. Be extremely sparing about your own contributions. Ideally you want to seed the conversation with sufficient space and challenge that colleagues can start generating their own solutions.

9. Integrity builds trust
Make sure your deeds match your words. If you say you are open to listening, you need to make sure you don’t punish the other person for speaking, suggesting or criticising. If you say you are open to their contributions and ideas, you need to follow through and not end up systematically rejecting them all. If you say you are making the other person responsible for the next step, recognise that stepping in or taking back control will undermine both them and you. If you say you will follow up with an action, failing to do so makes you look untrustworthy.

No amount of great dialogue can overcome the damage done by lack of integrity – indeed, failure to follow through or match deeds to your words makes it orders of magnitude harder to communicate effectively later. Where trust is low, aim for smaller, quicker wins to show that you will follow through.

These are all really tough, and it’s through making (many) mistakes with pretty much all of the above points that I’ve been learning to develop my own leadership. I’m going to try and blog more frequently and share some of the interesting ideas I’ve been reading. In my next blog I want to explore how to raise the level of challenge and expectation while improving buy-in and avoiding becoming top-down.

Pages 171-199 of the Best Evidence Synthesis: School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa, and Claire Lloyd, The University of Auckland

Open-to-learning conversations – a presentation by Viviane Robinson

Chris Argyris – Teaching Smart People How To Learn, Harvard Business Review

PS In a spectacular mathematics teacher fail, my original post was called “8 ways…” when in fact there are 9. Oops!

6 thoughts on “9 ways for leaders to be better at communication”

  1. Following on from my tweet, I agree that these skills take time to develop but I think you’re right to assert that it’s possible to consciously work on them with the helpful sentence stems you’ve listed. Scripting can a very useful strategy also.

    I guess, like many of us, you’ve arrived at this advice through experience and I feel that everyone has a professional responsibility to reflect and learn from when such conversations have gone well and when they haven’t!

    My journal over the years has been full of examples because these conversations either move issues forward or cause conflict – and they stay with you. Reading back over these entries is salutary – hindsight is a powerful agency.

    Looking forward to your next posts.

  2. Your list is excellent and in many ways it shows the great difficulty in spontaneous communication. We need to listen, show empathy and be authentic – but I think we need to be really conscious of our personal biases (and emotions as you state) and create more formal structures That help us manage and foster effective communication.

    We are working at Huntington to try and get a systems approach to getting teacher feedback, running through meeting structures etc. if we can get these strategic approaches to school structures right then the spontaneous, emotional stuff will be more trusted and we will have mechanisms to best support great dialogue. I fear that all sounds a little inhuman, but I think we can be lovely communicators and then fritter away those gains by not enacting our beliefs in daily school systems.


  3. These are very thoughtful points.Retrospection certainly does help us in ways that we may not initially accept, when our words are first misunderstood! Culture plays a vital role in communication, especially for Point 6. The audience may stay quiet out of respect or even fear of some negative outcome ( India / South Asia).Feedback is often taken as criticism, even if it is constructive.It is so important for leaders , as you say, to nurture integrity and trust.
    Look forward to reading more of your posts to share with my former teachers and colleagues.

  4. Thanks for this post – a lot have thought has clearly gone into it and it’s a really useful list. I feel that 8, integrity is particularly important. Number 6, leaving space, is the one I’m going to personally work on more. Thanks

  5. Don’t fluff- so easily done – being human sometimes being clear and honest makes it seem personal and I try to keep the mantra in my head, it’s professional not personal.
    I know I’ve found myself doing the clarify technique, had some good coaching sessions from a man called Barry Joy, when I became an assistant head and he taught me this. Used it lots!
    Jumping in with an answer/suggestion is so tempting too and I know I’ve put people off by doing this- which links brilliantly to your next point of ‘listen’- leaders are often manically juggling time and priority in their heads and it can be all to easy to half hear and only patch a problem – again, my new mantra is ‘go slower to move faster’. Thank you David this has refreshed and reminded me of crucial skills!

  6. Love this, David. I remember my mistakes over the years, too, and what I learnt from them. The older I get (and I am now, as you know, very old…) the more I appreciate that leadership is all about getting relationships and communication right, as far as we possibly can. If we do, much more follows. If we don’t, it doesn’t much matter how brilliant our ideas may be.

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