Leaders can’t succeed if they aren’t good communicators—and more often than not, leaders don’t even know that their communication skills need polishing. Helio Fred Garcia is aware of this and has helped leaders improve their communication skills and thereby build trust, inspire loyalty, and lead effectively. The President of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and adjunct professor of management at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Garcia shares his years of hands-on communication skills in his book The Power of Communication and answers to frequently asked questions about improving communication.
Q: What do you see as a major reason for developing your communication skills?
Communication has power, but like any powerful tool it needs to be used effectively or it can cause self-inflicted harm. Harnessing the power of communication is a fundamental leadership discipline.
In my many years of advising leaders on the actions and communication needed to win, keep, or restore public confidence, I have concluded that many leaders, much of the time, fundamentally misunderstand communication. This misunderstanding has consequences: corporations lose competitive advantage; not-for-profits find it harder to fulfill their mission; religious denominations lose the trust and confidence of their followers; nations diminish their ability to protect citizens and achieve national security goals.
One reason some leaders misunderstand communication is that they think they’re already good at it. They’ve been speaking since before they were one year old; reading since age four or five; writing soon after that. Unlike just about every other discipline leaders have had to master, they’ve been communicating their whole lives. It seemed to be no big deal. Just as a fish is unaware of the water it swims in, leaders often are unaware of their own communication abilities, or their lack thereof.
I have found that many leaders suffer career-defining blunders because they don’t take communication nearly as seriously as they take most other elements of their jobs. Effective leaders see communication as a critical professional aptitude and work hard at getting it right.
Leaders need to be as committed to building their communication skills as they are to building their more quantitative skills.
Q. In your book, you say that a key reason for communication is to change something—to influence the way your listener(s) think or feel. How do you ensure that you focus on what you want to change?
Effective communication is an act of will directed at a living entity to get him or her to respond as requested. The communicator never begins by telling the other part what he or she wants. Rather, he or she always begins by focusing on ways to trigger the desired reaction. Specifically, the effective communicator asks questions in a certain sequence:
What do we have? What is the challenge or opportunity we are hoping to address?
- What do we want? What’s our goal? We shouldn’t communicate unless we know what we’re trying to accomplish.
- Who matters? What stakeholders matter to us? What do we know about them? What further information do we need to get about them? What are the barriers to their receptivity to us, and how do we overcome those barriers?
- What do we need them to think, feel, know, or do in order to accomplish our goal?
- What do they need to see us do, hear us say, or hear others say about us to think, feel, know, and do what we want them to?
How do we make that happen?
Q. Why is it better not to rely solely on facts?
Context drives meaning. The same facts in different contexts have dramatically different meanings. So effective communicators establish a context first, and then communicate the facts.
Q. How do you engage your audience and thereby enhance your position?
If we are to move people, we need to meet them where they are. The bigger the gulf between “us and them,” the less likely it is that effective communication will take place.
Taking stakeholders seriously requires respecting the point of view of those whom we would engage. It requires curiosity about what matters to them, about what it takes to win them over and to keep their trust and confidence. Effective leaders connect with audiences by understanding what matters to them, and by speaking in ways that resonate with them.
Leaders are particularly prone to seeing the world from the perspective of their own organization, and to fail to consider—or to dismiss as irrelevant—the concerns of stakeholders. This is an occupational hazard that needs to be acknowledged and managed.
Audiences typically don’t care about a company’s operations. They don’t have sympathy for the business challenges or logistical issues a company may face. They care only about the impact on them. To get an audience to care, a company and its leaders need to begin with the audience’s concerns and then link those concerns to what the company is doing.
For leaders who live and breathe the company’s operation, this common-sense observation is hard to grasp. Audiences have their own ideas, their own concerns, their own frames of reference. And if we want to maintain their trust and confidence, we need to start by taking those ideas, concerns, and frames of references seriously.
Q. How do you link what you are saying to what you want done to ensure that you accomplish something?
Communication is merely one of the ways to fulfill a business or organizational goal. But it is one of many means. By itself it is rarely sufficient to accomplish most organizational goals. Rather, communication is what the military calls a force multiplier: It helps you do more, better, faster than you otherwise would be able to do. Effective communication can help accomplish any particular purpose better, and faster, and with fewer resources. But however effective, it must be paired with action that is consistent with what is said.
Leaders are judged on the fulfillment of expectations. When leaders make promises, either implicit or explicit, they are establishing criteria by which they ask to be judged. Once an expectation is set, the leader must either fulfill the expectation or reset it, or risk disappointment that shatters trust.
Resetting an expectation may cause some short-term pain. But it’s preferable to wholesale disappointment.
However tempting, leaders must resist saying what merely sounds good in the moment. Especially when things go wrong, leaders learn the hard way that they can’t talk their way out of a business problem. They certainly can’t talk their way out of a problem they “behaved” their way into. And once they’ve committed a say-do gap, it’s hard even to talk their way out of a problem they talked their way into.
Q. How do you overcome critics and adversaries when you communicate?
There is a first-mover advantage: Whoever defines the communication agenda first tends to win. The first mover advantage prevents critics and adversaries from framing the situation. Leaders need to define the crisis, their motives, and their actions first, consistently, and persistently. When stakeholders expect their leaders to step up, the leaders need to.
Speed isn’t just acting quickly. Rather, speed is best understood as tempo: the consistent ability to be effective in a timely way. It’s about acting effectively and engaging stakeholders promptly.
As important as the consistent ability to operate quickly is focus: the ability to concentrate attention on the right thing, and to align multiple communications by multiple parties.
Shaping the communication agenda requires considering more than what we may be minimally required to say, but rather identifying what we optimally should say in order to maintain trust, confidence, and loyalty.
Especially in contested situations, there is a constant interplay between being in control of the communication agenda and having to respond to others who are trying to control it. Because the battle for hearts and minds is often a competitive one, it’s critical for leaders to be able to capture, retain, and exploit the initiative.
The most effective way to make decisions about when to communicate is to operationalize the first mover advantage by asking four related questions, all of which have to do with stakeholder awareness and expectations:
- Will those who matter to us expect us to do or say something now? If so, we need to act and communicate now.
- Are others talking about us now, shaping the perception about us, among those who matter to us? Do we have reason to believe they will be soon? If so, we need to communicate quickly and fully before others define the crisis, our motives, or our actions.
- Will silence be seen as indifference or as an affirmation of guilt? If so, we need to not be silent, but rather to engage fully to prevent the perception of indifference.
- If we wait, will we lose the ability to control the outcome? If so, we should not wait.
If the answer to all four questions is no, then the leader should watch and wait, prepare to engage stakeholders, and then engage whenever the answer to any of them turns from no to yes. But as soon as the answer to any of the four questions is yes, the leader needs to overcome fear, inertia, embarrassment, or anxiety, and engage stakeholders effectively and quickly.
Once the decision is made to engage stakeholders, the rule of thumb for communicating bad news is as follows:
- Tell it all: Say all that is necessary to establish stakeholder understanding, buy-in, or neutrality.
- Tell it fast: Bundle the bad news into a single news cycle, and avoid dripping out new details over time, which creates a new news cycle and causes stakeholders to question the leadership skills of those communicating.
- Tell ’em what you’re doing about it.
- Tell ’em when it’s over.
- Get back to work.
Q. What steps can you take to better understand your audience?
Effective leaders connect with audiences by understanding what matters to them, and by speaking in ways that resonate with them. For any given stakeholder group, a leader should seek to understand three basic things, by asking three basic categories of questions:
1. An inventory of current knowledge: What do we know about the group?
- Which stakeholder group(s) matter(s)?
- What do we know about the group’s values, experiences, and level of sophistication?
- What don’t we know that we should?
2. Grounding to predict behavior: How does the group work?
- What are the group’s hopes, aspirations, and desires?
- What are the group’s worries, concerns, and fears?
- How does the group (or its individual members) make decisions?
3. The link between audiences and outcomes: How does the group relate to us?
- What does the group currently do, think, feel, or know in relation to us?
- What changes in the group’s actions, thoughts, feelings, or knowledge would benefit our goals?
- What are the opportunities and barriers for those changes to take place?
Mastering these three categories is a good starting point to communicating effectively.
Q. What are the most important skills as a communicator?
Harnessing the power of communication is a fundamental leadership discipline. Effective leaders see communication as a critical professional aptitude and work hard at getting it right.
Getting it right requires becoming strategic as a first resort: thinking through the desired change in the audience and the ways to make that happen.
Effective communicators take change seriously: They ground their work in moving people to be different: to think differently; to feel differently; to know or do things differently.
Effective communicators also take audiences seriously. They work hard to ensure that all engagements move people toward their goal. That means caring about what audiences think and feel now, and what it will take to get them to think and feel something else, and listening carefully to the reaction, and adapting where needed.
Effective communicators also take words seriously. They know that words trigger worldviews and provoke reactions. They plan their engagements so that the right words are used to trigger the right reaction.
Effective communicators also know that the best communication can be counterproductive if it isn’t aligned with action.
Q. Can you suggest some principles you follow as an effective communicator?
Here are the principles I try to follow when I speak with any group:
1. Frame first, and then give facts.
2. I follow the Rule of Threes: When I speak with people, I group thoughts, sentences, and words in threes.
3. I repeat.
Q. What strategies should you follow as a leader communicating a message?
Here are the Nine Principles of Effective Leadership Communication:
1. See communication as the continuation of business by other means:
- It is intentional.
- It is interactive.
- It is intended to provoke a reaction.
2. To move people, meet them where they are.
3. Walk the talk.
4. Control the communication agenda.
5. Remember that even small events, changes, or blunders can have big consequences.
6. Plan ahead and align tactics with strategy.
7. Invest in continuous improvement in communication skills.
8. Harness the power of language and of framing.
9. Understand how the human brain works.
Adapted from The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively
by Helio Fred Garcia, FT Press, 2012
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