27 Dec 2016 16:04 IST

Being an effective communicator

Pic credit: JrCasas/Shutterstock

You can be articulate in your responses, but if you lack empathy, you’ll be ineffective

During a recent coaching conversation I had with a very successful executive, the issue of why communication fails and is misunderstood came up. This was an issue that showed up in the leader’s 360 degree assessment I had done.

The leader was surprised and wanted to deal with it so he could improve. He is articulate, prompt and straightforward — these characteristics were uniformly seen by his colleagues and juniors. Therefore, the issue around communication sounded confusing and paradoxical. Can a leader be seen as authentic and articulate and yet be challenged on communication by the people he is working with?

Two things helped resolve this issue. One was the conversation pattern between me (the coach) and the leader (the coachee). The other was an agreed action plan during the coaching session, which included the leader asking his colleagues for help in terms of examples of pieces of conversations that made them think he was not responding well enough.

The instances

Both the above initiatives revealed something very subtle, but strong, in how the perception came about. Here are two examples of how it happened:

First: A colleague comes to him with a query on how to solve a problem. The response the colleague gets is: “Did you try doing it this way?” For the leader, he has responded and the matter is closed. For the colleague however, the issue hangs on, as no discussion on understanding the problem in totality and helping with a solution was attempted.

A show of empathy on the part of the leader would have taken this in the desired direction. For the leader, the insight he garnered from this instance was that he met his need to close the conversation, but ignored the “need of the colleague” to explore and solve.

Second: The leader’s boss approached him with a possible new initiative. The leader responded by asking what the purpose of this initiative was. A perfectly logical response, but asking the way he did put out an impression that the leader was pushing back the initiative and was disinterested! Again the central issue here is “empathy.”

Story behind the story

As can be seen in both the instances, the way the perception was formed has to do with how the leader responded to people when they approached him with a query. Choosing to respond with his need to close the conversation, and not with empathy to understand the need of the colleague, he became in ineffective communicator.

Seldom do we realise that our responses to people may appear complete and logical, but it falls short of the understanding that people expect from us. Is there a “story behind the story?” as the seasoned coaches always look for?

As I went exploring the story behind the story with this leader, it became clear to both of us that the latter responded more with his need to close the communication than addressing the need of his colleagues.

Be a better communicator

Reflecting on the following will help you be a better leader:

~ Did I listen to the whole story before I started to answer?

~ Did I demonstrate my understanding by paraphrasing before I started to answer?

~ Did I check if my answer met the need of the other person?

~ Did I answer to address my challenge (my harried work schedule, for example) or answer to address my colleague’s challenge?

~ Would I be satisfied if the roles were reversed, if I asked the question and got the answer I gave?

The root cause of this story behind the story is often being obsessed with one’s own concerns and not freeing up to help others by responding empathetically. Once we become aware of this nuance, we can become more productive and constructive in relating with people.

The coachee-leader has been working on this. He mentioned that he started to look at the way he was responding to his spouse and parents at home, using his new approach, and their feedback was very positive.

We always spoke of the ‘pre-occupied” mind that responds insufficiently. Getting over this is key to being perceived as an empathetic communicator.