I have previously shared that “most people understand communication is a two-way street, involving both talking and listening, but I would also guess that most people do far more talking than listening. . . . One of the skills, then, that is necessary for effective leadership (and for healthy relationships) is the ability to listen well. In short, we need to be good listeners.” However, while this is definitely true, it does not mean that we can neglect the other side of that street – we also need to be good talkers. Good communication involves both talking and listening, and so even though we tend to do one (talking) to the neglect of the other (listening), we can’t ignore either one. We need to do them both well.
I am by nature a reflective thinker, so I generally process my thoughts for a while before responding to people. What that looks like inside my head is, “Hmmm, let me think about that so that I can give you a very good answer,” but what it looks like to other people is, “Did he even hear a word that I said?” My wife humorously describes this thought process in my head as a train that is circling the tracks and eventually comes back around to the train station. So when my children ask me a question, and I haven’t answered yet, she will say, “Be patient children, the train is on its way back to the station.”
Although we joke about my train, recognizing this has helped me to understand that I have to verbally tell people that I am processing their questions, input, or ideas. I have learned that I need to tell people, out loud, that I have heard them and that I am thinking through what they said. They need to hear me speak. Why is that so? I think the answer comes from something else that I have often heard my wife say – if you give people a blank page, they will write in their own perceptions and ideas. If you don’t give people information that they need to know, or let them know that they have been heard, they will form their own conclusions which may or may not be true, and which will likely have to be addressed and/or corrected, which in turn makes your job of communicating that much more difficult.
Therefore, even though listening is a critical skill that we must develop, we also must learn to speak. I am not talking about the skill of public speaking (although that is something that also ought to be developed in our leadership), but about the simple act of communicating our thoughts, ideas, vision, and responses. We have to talk to people, and we must do it in a way that lets them feel heard, gives them understanding, enlists their support, and provides information that they need. In order to do this well, there are three needs that must be met by our words.
First, people need to feel informed. No one likes to be surprised with information, especially if they will be impacted by the circumstances or the information. It is therefore important that they know what is happening around them. As you lead your organization or your team, there will be changes that you need to implement, strategies that you need to develop, and obstacles that you need to navigate. During those experiences, you need to communicate what is happening and what you are doing. And it is especially important that you communicate information to someone if you are obligating his or her participation. If they have to contribute or participate and they have not been properly informed, they will resist. So the bottom line is, you must be sure to communicate well and communicate much.
Second, people need an active, accurate data stream of information. They will generally believe what they hear most repeated, and so if you do not make sure that the information they receive is accurate and frequent, people will begin to believe things that are not true, or will form perceptions that can be detrimental to your direction. And once perceptions are formed, they can be hard to change. The information that people will be exposed to will often come from other sources besides you – the gossip of coworkers, the opinions of friends and relatives, the advertising of competitors – so you will need to make sure that they are repeatedly hearing true information.
Third, people need to hear stories. Stories make cold facts become relatable, memorable, and more believable. They provide handles for information so that they can remember what is important, and can share it with others. As Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker say in School Culture Rewired (2015), “Stories are the currency of a culture – they are the most effective means of transferring information from one person to another” (p. 38). It follows, then, that leaders should become good storytellers, able to put information in the context of a story that they tell. When you do that, people are more likely to listen and understand, and will have a better grasp of the information that you share.
So, the conclusion should be that we need to talk as well as we listen. In order to do that, we must be intentional about what and how we communicate, to ensure that our words are meeting the needs of our listeners. Make sure that we are communicating information that our followers need to hear, that we are doing it often and accurately, and that we are using stories for the context. Then, when that happens, our words will fill in the page in front of them with the information that will be best for their growth and their performance.