Good communication is so critical there have been mountains of books written on the subject and countless seminars delivered. If communication is so important, then why do we struggle with it so much. I believe one reason is we lose sight of the core purpose.

As leaders, the most common purpose of our communication is to change behavior. This might be delivering a rousing sermon on Sunday to encourage discipleship, or coaching a staff member to learn a new skill. If we measure the quality of our communication by the resulting behavior, it changes our perspective.

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

They Just Don’t Get It

Too often as leaders, we put the burden of understanding on the receiver. It is their job to understand our thoughts, dreams, biases, and personality. If they would take the time to understand me better, then they would surely grasp the message and do what I asked.

As you might imagine, this line of thinking often takes us down the path of judging others for their inability to get with the program, because they are not smart enough, talented enough, or bought-in enough. If we go further, it might lead us to believe they are even being malicious because they won’t get on board.

When they just don’t get it, there is a gap between your intent and their behavior.

Mind the Gap

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. – Alan Greenspan

In any simple exchange between two people, there is a chain of translation and the message can get lost anywhere along the way.

  1. I have an idea in my head, made up of pictures, feelings, words.
  2. I translate the je ne sais quoi of that mélange into concrete words and pictures to share.
  3. You hear most of those words and probably lose a few.
  4. The words you hear have a different meaning and significance for you, potentially triggering a response that is very different than I hoped for.
  5. You then create your behavior to match the internal response (more pictures, feelings, and words) generated in this exchange.

With all those potential gaps in communication, it is a miracle we get anything done! With all that signal loss, how to we communicate in a way to close those gaps?

  • Stop Talking and Listen. At each of those transition points, stop and ask how they are receiving. It is important to ask what they received, not just “are you keeping up?”. Most of the time, people are not lost in the discussion, they are translating incorrectly. For practical suggestions on how to actively listen to someone, I recommend this blog and video by Greg Salciccioli at CoachWell.
  • Get Flexible. Each person is going to respond better to different language structures or examples of the point you are making. As a leader, the burden is on you to be the most flexible communicator in the exchange. If you naturally draw pictures, can you learn to tell stories, or share a heartfelt emotion effectively? If you were born in the city, can you learn to share a rural example? The more flexible you are as a thinker and communicator, the more likely you will elicit the response you are seeking.

Your Next Move

Think of the last time you shared a message and didn’t get the response you anticipated. Identify where the communication broke down and use your flexibility to close that gap.