10 Communication Techniques Used by Great Leaders
Written by Dave Bailey
Communication goes far beyond ‘choosing the right words’. It involves understanding your audience, actively listening, and being able to empathise with people. It also requires good facilitation skills, the ability to control your body language, and a lot of intuition too. But clearly, word choice is critically important.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been collecting techniques that help me communicate more effectively as a leader. Here are some of the most useful ones I’ve discovered:
1. To convince, start with ‘why’.
Imagine you’re presenting an important decision to your team. One way to do it is to simply state your decision and then explain why you took it. However, a split second after you’ve stated it, your listeners make an intuitive judgement call on whether they think it’s good or bad. If they don’t like it, the explanations you give for taking that decision can sound like excuses.
Reversing the order of the information — and leading with the reasons that motivated your decision — enables you to take your listeners on a journey, in which your answer is the logical conclusion.
2. To win hearts and minds, show vulnerability, then vision.
Have you ever met someone with an answer for everything? It’s a charade that doesn’t last long — especially if you manage people. So what should you do when the team are looking to you for direction?
Vulnerability and vision are a magic combination. Showing vulnerability — by admitting that you don’t have all the answers, or that you too are scared sometimes — can foster a sense of connection . . . and hearts love connection. Then, your vision can provide direction for the team . . . and minds love vision.
3. To make a request, use the NVC format.
Giving feedback and making requests in difficult situations is challenging for everyone. One reason they’re scary is because it’s hard to know how the other person will react. Luckily, there’s a powerful template from Marshall Rosenburg’s book Nonviolent Communication (NVC) that can help you structure your feedback:
When ____[observation], I feel ____[emotion] because I’m needing some ____[universal needs]. Would you be able to ____[request]?
It’s harder to do than it looks, partly because we’re not taught a vocabulary of emotions and needs at school, but for a full introduction to NVC, check out ‘The Essential Guide to Difficult Conversations’.
4. To make a point, stick to the 40-word rule.
When we need to say something that may be hard to listen to, many of us tend to talk too much. We might emphasise how sorry we are to have to say it or offer multiple justifications so people can see where we’re coming from.
However, after hearing this kind of thing, people often need some time with their thoughts — and just because you’re talking, it doesn’t mean they’re listening. Anything can be summed up in 40 words or less. Take the time to prepare, so you can get straight to the point, and then stop speaking.
5. To engage, tell a story.
Stories are powerful because they can tap into our emotions in a way that dry facts often can’t. Storytelling has become an essential part of the leader’s toolkit.
A good story doesn’t have to be two hours long — it just needs a little setup, and a struggle that people can relate to. For a more comprehensive list of how to construct stories in business, along with more techniques, such as ‘the pregnant pause’ and ‘using dialogue’, check out ’12 Storytelling Techniques to Supercharge Your Communications’.
6. To empower, ask for permission.
There is a very simple, yet very powerful, trick to getting people to go along with what you want. Just ask their permission.
- Do I have your permission to interrupt you if we go off agenda?
- Do I have your permission to give you some feedback?
- Do I have your permission to adjust the scope?
Asking permission shows respect and empowers others with a sense of control. It can be disarming when a leader asks for permission and more often than not, people are more than happy to give it.
7. To coach, ask questions.
Every leader knows how tempting it is to jump in and solve other people’s problems for them. However, if you’re doing the work of the people who are supposed to work for you, how are they ever going to grow?
The best leaders are able to control themselves and ask questions instead. Asking good questions takes practice. A good question is open, simple, curious, and often starts with ‘what’ or ‘how’. For a more comprehensive guide to asking questions, check out ‘How to Help Your Team Think for Themselves’.
8. To come up with new ideas, say ‘yes and . . .’
The ability to brainstorm is a useful skill for any leader. However, few things kill creativity faster than the words ‘no, but . . .’
‘What did father used to say? Everything before the word “but” is horse shit.’ — Jon Snow
‘Yes, and . . .’ is a technique that comes originally from improvisational comedy. By accepting an idea and adding more information, you encourage others to build on top of it, rather than tearing it down. I’ve met people who have eliminated the word ‘but’ from their vocabulary altogether, insisting that it changes the way they think for the better.
9. To convince, empathise first.
I learned this from a sales course about how to handle objections. When trying to sell your product or idea to others, you’re likely to receive good reasons why it wouldn’t work. How should you respond?
The naive response is to try and convince the naysayers that they are wrong. However, empathising with their feelings before launching into another rationale can increase the chances of them listening. One framework for doing this is ‘feel, felt, found’:
I know how you feel. I felt the same way, and I found that____ [evidence that changed your mind]
10. To listen, be the last to speak.
Leaders are often creative and bubbling with ideas. However, using your position to get your ideas in first can rob your team of the chance to come up with ideas themselves.
In a debate or group decision, it usually pays to listen to others before you chime in with your own ideas. By hearing alternative opinions and suggestions first, you gain an information advantage, as well as the opportunity to acknowledge your team. And crucially, people are more likely to listen to your ideas if they feel they’ve been listened to.
While I’ve found these techniques to have a wide range of applications, they are just the tip of the communication iceberg. Like all of us, I’m still learning, and I’m curious — what are your favourite communications frameworks, or the verbal patterns that have helped you? Please, share them in the comments and help us all become better communicators.
Originally published Oct 15 2019, last updated Jun 1, 2021
About Dave Bailey
Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week.
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