Teamwork requires communication. Communication is the lifeblood of a team. It’s how leaders and teams coordinate what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and how all those various tasks fit into the broad whole of collaboration. As a leader, communication skills are arguably the most important skills to develop. And if you’re an aspiring leader, you’ll need to improve your communication skills before you even find yourself in a leadership role.
In this article, we’ll outline four ways to improve your communication skills and hence 4 ways to grow in your ability to lead.
The first way to improve your communication skills is to listen actively. Most of the work of communication involves listening first and seeking to understand those who will receive whatever message you want to convey. However, many people (and too many leaders) listen passively or listen for the pause in someone else’s communication so they can shove their message in and dominate the conversation. Active listening involves being focused on hearing the other person, including asking questions to get more information and even summarizing what you’ve heard them say before you speak. If you listen to understand, then check for understanding, you’ll ensure that when you do speak, you’re understood as well.
The second way to improve your communication skills is to talk narratively. Whatever your message, outline it in a story or at least a message that follows a narrative structure. The oldest narrative structure is the “three act” structure. From the plays of ancient Greece onward, stories are often told using the framework of Setup, then Conflict, then Resolution. The scene is set, then something happens to create conflict, and the characters work toward a resolution. Most messages can be conveyed in some form of three act structure, even if it changes slightly to something like Goal, Challenge, Plan of Action, or Problem, Constraints, Proposed Solution. Sending your message across in a narrative structure increases the chances its heard and remembered because it’s received in a format listeners or readers are already familiar with.
The third way to improve your communication skills is to stand confidently. And obviously this applies to spoken communication, not written. But it can even apply to virtual meetings as well. (When I deliver virtual keynotes and trainings, I always do so using a standing desk.) When you’re listening and speaking, you want your body to be in an active and confident posture. You communicate a lot about your interest or enthusiasm in the other person through your posture. So, stand straight, retract your shoulders. If you want to be perceived as a leader, your body language will be a large part of that perception. You’ll seem more engaged when listening, and your voice will sound more engaging when speaking.
The final way to improve your communication skills is to setup generously. Communication is a conversation, even when its asynchronous. Communication is always a two-way street. You are always both the sender and receiver. But too many people try for “mic drop” moments or sending a message that “owns” the conversation and silences everyone else. They mistake silence for consensus. But a better approach is to view communication as a volley. Your goal is to send the message across to the other person in a way that best ensures they send a message back. So, when you’ve finished sending your message, find a way to encourage their response either by asking a question, asking for feedback, or inviting them to build upon your idea. Set them up generously and you’ll keep the dialogue flowing productively.
All four of these methods will improve your communication skills, but it’s worth circling back to the very first method again. Because without active listening, the rest of these methods become hard to implement. You need to listen actively to uncover what they think and decide how to talk narratively. You need to listen actively to feel confident sending your message. And you need to listen actively to set other parties up generously. So, while you could work on any of these four methods, it’s best to start by working on active listening. Leaders who actively listen communicate better and build teams that communicate better. And that helps everyone do, their best work ever.
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