Let’s start with what communication is about?

In its simplest form, it’s about sending and receiving information. 

How can something so simple be so tricky yet so fundamental?

Because it is so fundamental for leaders, but also in everyday life, I’m starting this leadership toolbox series on this topic. 

Sometimes we share information – it’s 22 C outside. Other times we request information. 

Sometimes we provide information in the shape of opinion, sentiment, or emotion. When we provide negative feedback on work performance, things can get very tricky fast. 

It’s still just information traveling between two people.  The exact same words, depending on how the tone of voice can have a very different impact. In one case, it can lead to the desired action, in the other, the opposite.

To complicate things further, the same words and tone depending on the cultural context can have a different result.

If this all seems daunting, don’t worry. I’ll help you make sense of it all, and in the process, help you become a better leader.

Start with you

The first thing to understand is yourself.

There are several aspects or parameters of communication. Just like a car has a color, engine size, make, and model, you also have a specific combination of preferences that make you unique.

It’s important to know what your preference is because when someone else has the same style – when they are similar to you – you will tend to like them more for no reason other than that they are like you.

Meanwhile, if someone has a different approach, you may feel resistance, and if you are not aware of this, may judgment negatively for no good reason. This can lead to poor decisions.

When John, a DevOps engineer at Google, works with someone else like him, prefers to provide direct negative feedback, He tends to trust them and appreciate the honesty.

While when he works with someone who is indirect in their feedback, he is annoyed and find it inefficient. At first, he would judge the person (not just their communication style) as untrustworthy and indecisive.

He has since learned that it’s merely their communication style that he dislikes but also knows that the approaches to sharing information are simple – not better or worse than one another.

You also need to be aware of bias (and especially unconscious bias). These are generalizations that are either positive or negative but deemed unfair. It can be as simple as judging people who speak with a specific accent as more intelligent, while those who speak with another accent as less intelligent.

The reason I start with us, the person in the mirror, because all these factors have to do with us – It’s all in our head – but they can have a profound impact on our communication, and the decisions and actions we take after that.

If left unchecked, they lead to poor decision making, which in turn can lead to disasters for your company or organization.

Variance is Beautiful

So what are these differences between people, and what do I need to know (or memorize)? Not much; just understand that there ways you are both similar and different from others.   

Your and your colleague Jill may both prefer direct communication when receiving feedback while you may be more of a visual person while Jill may be more on the auditory side.

The important lesson here is that while you may find something in common, it doesn’t mean that they are automatically similar in other ways too. Verify your assumptions and adapt your communication to each individual.

Some of the areas of differentiation are

  • Direct vs indirect (when sharing information)
  • Direct vs indirect (when providing negative feedback)
  • Visual vs Auditory
  • Outspoken vs Reserved
  • Share in groups vs one-on-one
  • Spoken vs Written

Certain traits are often cultural. Meaning people from a certain culture generally (but not always) have certain preferences. Germans tend to be direct, while Indians tend to be indirect. On the individual level, there is still a lot of variances, so you need to verify where the person you are dealing with stands. 

Others are very personal and can occur either way, no matter where you are in the world. There are extroverts and introverts around the world in similar distributions. 

You always have to be vigilant and review your assumptions and your approach. 

In Practice

When you meet someone new, the first step is to build rapport and trust. It’s the essential foundation stone. These allow the other person to be open to you, share more information, and will enable you to engage in more in-depth, more constructive discussion.

Indian culture is well known for its preference for indirect communication. It’s very frustrating for Americans and other direct communicators. However, the American or German will find that if they can build rapport and trust with their Indian counterpart, their South Asian colleague is capable of being direct. It’s simply not their default behavior or preference.

One approach is not better than another; they are merely different. Each approach evolved to be what they are not for equally valid historical and environmental reasons.

Once you built rapport and trust with your counterpart, you’ll also learn how you should be adapting your communication.

There will be moments when someone does something that evokes a negative reaction. I have a very important three-letter acronym for you: MRI. Assume Most Respectful Intent then hold judgment and ask yourself, “Why is this happening?”

What this means is that by default, most people don’t intend to offend or hurt you. However, as different cultures and worldviews clash in today’s diverse and borderless workplace, you meat someone who acts in a way that, in his context, is considered polite, while the same act, in your context, is impolite. Yes, there are some jerks out there, but that’s a minority.

But holding back from reacting automatically, you allow yourself to understand the other person. With that added information, you can choose your next action wisely.

I must reiterate, you must continue to be vigilant. Always be ready to adapt your approach and review your assumptions.

Be Inclusive

You did an excellent job so far; you are aware of differences and similarities between communication styles and preferences.  How do you become truly inclusive? 

The first part has to do with how you transmit.   

Make sure not to alienate any particular groups of receivers but using lingo or inside jokes that only a small sub-group understands.  Be especially careful not to make insensitive comments.

You might find a joke funny, but it may be insulting for others.  The group or person that is slighted may not feel safe to speak if they are an underrepresented minority and will instead tune out.  This is a tremendous loss for the organization on every level. 

Whenever possible, use different mediums to share the same information: if you are doing a spoken presentation, have visual support.  Touch both on the application of a solution as well as the principles behind it. 

The second part has to with receiving.

Make sure that there is more than one way to respond or provide feedback.  You may like to just pol the group with a show of hands, but some people may be shy. Others may need to reflect a little.  So let people speak up during the meeting, but let others book a time one-on-one with you or provide their thought by email. 

It’s when you allow everybody to bring their whole self by allowing them to communicate and connect with the rest of the organization in whatever way they are comfortable with that you unlock the power of diversity. 

More points of view and more perspectives lead to better solutions, more innovation, and creativity. Ultimately, it means saving time and increasing profits.

Daily Practice

How can you get good at this?  There are daily practices that can go a long way. 

Look for opportunities to be exposed to people from different backgrounds, whether it’s in your organization in your personal life. Get curious. 

Look around you. If all your friends (at work at in personal life) are either white or black, then make an effort to make friends with East and South Areas and LatinX.  It may not be easy at first, but once you break through the differences and realize how similar you are, it’ll be very rewarding.  

Mindful meditation is also very powerful. I take 15 minutes in the morning, just sitting at my desk and focusing on my breath in silence. This has helped me hone in on my internal reactions, so I know when I start to be annoying and stop myself from reaction automatically – instead, I can try to understand the situation.

It’s also to have a small group of colleagues or friends who you can share stories with. Find 4-5 people who, like you, want to become better leaders.  You should also join our Facebook, where you’ll find like-minded people from around the world with one thing in common: want to become better leaders. 

What’s Next?

Communication is perhaps the most important fundamental skill of a leader.

Without communication, there is no leadership, collaboration, friendship. There is nothing. You are by yourself. 

The greatest achievement of humankind always involved people coming together to solve great challenges. The keyword here is together.

These skills are not difficult to learn, but you have to start somewhere. Quickly they become second nature, and you start to enjoy the benefits both in your professional and personal life.