When you think of great leaders, what image comes to mind? For many, they envision a well-known CEO granting an TV interview or see a politician taking tough questions in a press briefing. Granted, many leaders do have a commanding physical presence and exceptional communication skills.
But more often than not, truly great leaders have mastered the communication skills that really matter in the day-to-day run of things….
Sure, every communication consultant, trainer, or writer expounds on the critical importance of active listening: listening to hear and understand what other people are saying. So enough already! Everyone knows they should listen more and talk less.
Listening deeply goes, well, deeper than hearing what people say and what they mean by their words. True masters listen for what others can’t or won’t express in words. That is, a strong leader probes to discover and analyze what the team member or client wants and needs before he or she understands what their own words “mean.”
Because of their knowledge of a situation, current events, or history, their brain acts like a “translator.” Some may consider that ability either intuition or psychological perception. But whatever the skill, they hear what’s not said and translate the message.
They often mimic the role of narrator Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby, hearing what the frivolity, leisurely pastimes, and disjointed conversations around him “say” about the individuals and their needs.
So you’ll find these listeners sitting quietly at the peripheral of a conversation, encouraging others to speak up with ideas or opinions.
Attorneys live by this axiom: “Don’t ask questions in court if you don’t already know the answers.” In corporations, weak leaders demonstrate this same axiom when they question staffers, intending to put them on the spot or to embarrass them for poor performance.
Great communicators never fall into this trap. They ask questions they don’t know the answers to and questions that open rather than close doors.
Sure, they ask questions to gather more information. But they also ask questions to make others reflect. They ask questions to generate creative thinking. They ask questions to surface exceptions and cautions. As a supervisor, they ask questions to guide.
No, they don’t ask questions to side-track a meeting or conversation—but rather to surface limitations, more opportunities, or simply broader considerations.
Their questions may penetrate dreams, perplex activists, prevent damage, haunt the guilty, affirm the valued, challenge the research, or motivate the doer. The highest value of their questions may be unexpressed thinking.
Strong leaders become known for the hard questions they ask—those questions that can’t be answered quickly. Hard question result in hard thinking and sometimes even harder work.
At some point, great leaders have to pull the above two skills together to master a third skill: They have to be able to synthesize what they’ve heard and what they’ve not heard to communicate clearly to a broader audience what they need to do.
Listening is not enough. Analyzing is not enough. Guiding and challenging is not enough. Great leaders eventually move to the front of the line. They communicate a clear, concise action to move people and organizations forward.
Their promotions and career depend on these three essentials.
Learn more leadership communication skills to master with Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done