The topic of communication is vast, and we will certainly include many articles over time. Let’s begin with a couple of thoughts worth keeping in mind throughout your journey as a leader. The first important piece of information to remember is that you cannot not communicate. Not saying something does not mean that you are not communicating. If we accept that the result of communication depends on what is heard, rather than what is said, then this gives us an insight into why communication at some level is unavoidable.
Let’s consider a few examples. Have you ever waited for a call that never came? Perhaps you have a regular call with a friend, family member or colleague? What happens when that call doesn’t happen? What do you feel? What do you think? I’m sure we’ve all been waiting for an ‘important’ call about a job interview at some stage. When the expected communication doesn’t occur as anticipated, it doesn’t mean no communication has happened. Why? Because we then make it up! We fill in the gaps with our imagination, often leading to negative assumptions.
The reason we often sway to negative assumptions can be put down to evolution. Our brains have developed over millions of years and yet, it is only very recently that humans could survive without a primarily negative, defensive outlook. Being alert for danger would have been hard-wired for survival. Wild animals, harsh terrain, a lack of medical knowledge, amongst other reasons all contributed to a primal need to be careful and alert. This is not to be confused with the stress response itself. Being under pressure to perform can greatly enhance performance, indeed just believing that added pressure, which leads to physiological stress, can greatly enhance performance can then lead to enhanced performance. This is more about the context of expectation. Wandering around, constantly looking on the bright side of life, would probably have meant a short life. Thus, we can still have a tendency to catastrophise internally, think the worst has happened or will happen.
“If we accept that the result of communication depends on what is heard, rather than what is said, then this gives us an insight into why communication at some level is unavoidable.”
Bringing this understanding into your awareness, as a leader, will give you the opportunity to greatly improve your communication and that of your team. Look for opportunities to communicate positively and potential occasions where you may have left the meaning of your communication open to interpretation. Provide clarity of your intentions and establish moments to confirm understanding.
Even the most seemingly innocuous inaction can prove telling, as I learnt many years ago. By not saying “good morning” when passing an open office door, I unintentionally allowed my assistant to assume that I didn’t value my staff, including them. Clearly a situation far from the truth, but I wasn’t aware of this misunderstanding at the time. My real failing in the situation was that I had not created the conditions for open, immediate communication. If my assistant had felt comfortable enough coming to me on the first occasion and stating that, ‘I like a ‘good morning’ in the morning’, I could have made sure my behaviour reflected that, and made sure that they knew I still valued their work and presence even on the days when my behaviour didn’t necessarily show it.
The ‘you cannot not communicate’ takeaways?
- If you are the leader, be aware that you are constantly being observed
- If you want someone to know something, be sure to be clear in your explanation and not leave it to the imagination-confirm understanding
- Create the conditions for open, immediate communication
As a final thought, when you catch yourself mind reading or assuming things about others, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself how likely is that situation that you thought up? What else could it be? Be open to finding out the actual truth about communication.