When it comes to communication, we all tend to think we’re pretty good at it. Truth is, even those of us who are good communicators aren’t nearly as good as we think we are. This overestimation of our ability to communicate is magnified when interacting with people we know well.
Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business put this theory to the test and what they discovered is startling. In the study, the researchers paired subjects with people they knew well and then again with people they’d never met. The researchers discovered that people who knew each other well understood each other no better than people who they’d just met! Even worse, participants frequently overestimated their ability to communicate, and this was more pronounced with people they knew well.
“Our problem in communicating with friends is that we have an illusion of insight,” said study co-author Nicholas Epley. “Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding.”
When communicating with people we know well, we make presumptions about what they understand—presumptions that we don’t dare make with strangers. This tendency to overestimate how well we communicate (and how well we’re understood) is so prevalent that psychologists even have a name for it: closeness-communication bias.
“The understanding, ‘What I know is different from what you know’ is essential for effective communication,” said study lead Kenneth Savitsky, “but that insight can be elusive. Some [people] may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person.”
Communication is the real work of leadership; you simply can’t become a great leader until you are a great communicator. Great communicators inspire people. They create a connection that is real, emotional, and personal. And great communicators forge this connection through an understanding of people and an ability to speak directly to their needs in a manner that they are ready to hear.
The eight strategies that follow will help you to overcome the communication bias that tends to hold us back with everyone we encounter, especially those we know well. Apply these strategies and watch your communication skills reach new heights.
As a leader, you often have to speak to groups of people. Whether a small team meeting or a company-wide gathering, you need to develop a level of intimacy in your approach that makes each individual in the room feel as if you’re speaking directly to him or her. The trick is to eliminate the distraction of the crowd so that you can deliver your message just as you would if you were talking to a single person. You want to be emotionally genuine and exude the same feelings, energy, and attention you would one-on-one (as opposed to the anxiety that comes with being in front of people). The ability to pull this off is the hallmark of great leadership communication.
Great communicators read their audience (groups and individuals) carefully to ensure they aren’t wasting their breath on a message that people aren’t ready to hear. Talking so people will listen means you adjust your message on the fly to stay with your audience (what they’re ready to hear and how they’re ready to hear it). Droning on to ensure you’ve said what you wanted to say does not have the same effect on people as engaging them in a meaningful dialogue in which there is an exchange of ideas. Resist the urge to drive your point home at all costs. When your talking leads to people asking good questions, you know you’re on the right track.
One of the most disastrous temptations for a leader is to treat communication as a one-way street. When you communicate, you must give people ample opportunity to speak their minds. If you find that you’re often having the last word in conversations, then this is likely something you need to work on.
Listening isn’t just about hearing words; it’s also about listening to the tone, speed, and volume of the voice. What is being said? Anything not being said? What hidden messages below the surface exist? When someone is talking to you, stop everything else and listen fully until the other person has finished speaking. When you are on a phone call, don’t type an email. When you’re meeting with someone, close the door and sit near the person so you can focus and listen. Simple behaviors like these will help you stay in the present moment, pick up on the cues the other person sends, and make it clear that you will really hear what he or she is saying.
Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” As a leader, your communication is impotent if people don’t connect with it on an emotional level. This is hard for many leaders to pull off because they feel they need to project a certain persona. Let that go. To connect with your people emotionally, you need to be transparent. Be human. Show them what drives you, what you care about, what makes you get out of bed in the morning. Express these feelings openly, and you’ll forge an emotional connection with your people.
Your authority makes it hard for people to say what’s really on their minds. No matter how good a relationship you have with your subordinates, you are kidding yourself if you think they are as open with you as they are with their peers. So, you must become adept at understanding unspoken messages. The greatest wealth of information lies in people’s body language. The body communicates nonstop and is an abundant source of information, so purposefully watch body language during meetings and casual conversation. Once you tune into body language, the messages will become loud and clear. Pay as much attention to what isn’t said as what is said, and you’ll uncover facts and opinions that people are unwilling to express directly.
A little preparation goes a long way toward saying what you wanted to say and having a conversation achieve its intended impact. Don’t prepare a speech; develop an understanding of what the focus of a conversation needs to be (in order for people to hear the message) and how you will accomplish this. Your communication will be more persuasive and on point when you prepare your intent ahead of time.
The business world is filled with jargon and metaphors that are harmless when people can relate to them. Problem is, most leaders overuse jargon and alienate their subordinates and customers with their “business speak.” Use it sparingly if you want to connect with your people. Otherwise, you’ll come across as insincere.
Active listening is a simple technique that ensures people feel heard, an essential component of good communication. To practice active listening:
- Spend more time listening than you do talking.
- Do not answer questions with questions.
- Avoid finishing other people’s sentences.
- Focus more on the other person than you do on yourself.
- Focus on what people are saying right now, not on what their interests are.
- Reframe what the other person has said to make sure you understand him or her correctly (“So you’re telling me that this budget needs further consideration, right?”)
- Think about what you’re going to say after someone has finished speaking, not while he or she is speaking.
- Ask plenty of questions.
- Never interrupt.
- Don’t take notes.
As you work to employ these strategies, try to avoid biting off more than you can chew. Working on one to three strategies at a time is sufficient. If you try to take on more than you can handle, you’re not going to see as much progress as you would if you narrowed your focus. Once you become effective in one particular strategy, you can take on another one in its place. Communication is a dynamic element of leadership that is intertwined in most of what you do each day. You’ll have ample opportunity to improve your abilities in this critical skill.