Leadership – Nothing you say matters if people can’t understand you

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: March 6th 2012

I talked to a colleague yesterday and asked her what she was up to. She said she needed to write a paper on a “reflexive analysis focusing on dialogue as a process for relational learning.” Wow, that’s a mouthful. Now I’ve gone to university, have a few degrees, consider myself at least able to understand the written word in front of me and I immediately had to go to Google to find out what she just said to me. Then I remember that I did indeed do this research in university too and recalled the terms. However, the terms mean nothing to me now but I still remember my mom saying, “You need to listen to people and think about what they say.” That meant a lot to me because first it was my mom, and second, it made perfect sense.

The dialogue with my colleague reminded me that a key role of leaders is to make sure that you are a good communicator. It doesn’t matter much what you say if the people you are talking to can’t understand it. Listening to someone shouldn’t require Google. Sometimes, I feel that the research world would be well advised to write things in ways that made sense to those who practice. From my brief reading, reflexive analysis and relational learning really is about a dialogue where people’s views and opinions are valued, respected, and incorporated into the dialogue. Through dialogue and reflecting on that dialogue, people learn from each other. That’s probably way over simplifying, but it makes sense to me.

As a leader, you are charged with communicating. This is not an easy task. You are often given complex information and circumstances, have to weave together multiple threads and somehow put it together for people to understand. I often think that if they can’t repeat what you’ve said, you probably haven’t said it very well. It should make sense.

To communicate well, you do indeed need to listen to others and to incorporate this knowledge into your thinking. You need to believe in your heart that what they have to say has value. Gather the song beneath their words and truly seek to understand their point of view. If you cannot, you’ll only be talking at cross purposes in the end or your synthesis of their viewpoint will miss the mark.

I really don’t think it’s that complicated and it gets back to my mom who would tell me:

  • Listen to what people say – everyone has worth and knowledge; and
  • You can learn from others, everyone knows things that you don’t know.

From there, the real work begins. As a leader you need to listen to these sometimes thousand points of light, incorporate these views into your thinking. After you have listened or while you are facilitating conversations you need to:

  • Be an excellent synthesizer of information, scanning for themes and seeing commonality;
  • Be able to organize and structure information into categories to help others see that commonality and open it to discussion;
  • Feedback what you’ve heard to push others to clarify their thinking or yours;
  • Make sure that the ideas presented or proposed are clearly understood;
  • Use all your senses to notice what’s going on – tune-in to people’s emotions;
  • Be compassionate and caring by putting yourself in other people’s shoes – empathize; and
  • Communicate effectively while being sensitive to the views of others.

Understanding the world isn’t that easy. But as I’ve shared in other posts, human values are pretty consistent and with some work, it isn’t that hard to see the real passion and purpose behind conversations. This does require a dialogue, not a debate. Perhaps for all of us, the best starting point is not to talk, but to listen. Going back to the start, if you can’t really be open to what people have to say and to truly understand it, then you really haven’t got a foundation to stand upon to build the conversation up from there.

As my colleague grappled with the task and what it meant, we laughed about what the assignment actually meant. Having just seen The Lorax, I suggested that maybe Dr. Seuss could help. After all, he said things pretty clearly. I was reminded of Horton the Who where he wrote:

A person’s a person no matter how small.

I wonder if Dr. Seuss ever met my mom?  It seems that they have a lot in common and what they said sure makes sense to me.