Leadership and communication go hand in hand. Often, if you are a good communicator, you’ll be seen as a leader. Because communication is an exchange of information between people, the challenge a leader faces in being a good communicator is to become good at the exchange. It’s this exchange that frequently causes leaders trouble.
Often, leaders think they have communicated with their crew when, in reality, they haven’t. Leaders repeatedly fail to articulate a message in a way that is clear for others, or they fail to listen attentively, or they don’t learn from mistakes when their miscommunication causes problems.
From a leadership perspective, effective communication isn’t a “nice to have” skill; it’s a “must have” skill. If leaders cannot get their point across or if they don’t listen to input from others, they will have difficulty being an effective leader.
Communication is a skill, just like learning how to read or drive a tender. This means practice is necessary to become proficient. Some may think this is kind of silly, since most of us have been speaking since we were toddlers. Isn’t that enough practice to become proficient with communicating? Unfortunately, no. Communicating is more than simply the ability to speak.
Communication is a combination of an ability to listen to others, the spoken word, body language and the tone of voice used when speaking, all of which convey a message.
For example, consider a first officer who is asked questions by members of the deck team. If she doesn’t care about the questions or the deck crew, the lack of caring may be demonstrated through her body language and other signs the deck crew can perceive.
Perhaps the first officer reads her e-mail while questions are asked, or perhaps she turns her body to face away from the speaker halfway through the conversation. Small things like these are cues others pick up on as forms of nonverbal communication.
Effective leadership requires effective communication. Start with listening. One of the most powerful ways to become a better communicator is to become a better listener.
Active, effective listening includes the five following steps:
- Pay attention to the speaker and what is said. Give the speaker undivided attention, and acknowledge the message. Don’t think about a response, or be distracted with some other task such as a text or e-mail while someone else is speaking.
- Show that you are listening. Use body language and gestures to convey attention: turn your body to face the speaker, look people in the eye, ask questions as necessary.
- Provide feedback. Repeat back, paraphrase and use the words the speaker used as a way of conveying understanding. In paraphrasing, repeat the speaker’s words back as a question. For example, “So what I hear you saying is … Is that correct?”
This leaves little room for assumption or interpretation. It’s functional, mechanical and leaves little doubt as to what is meant by the speaker.
- Defer judgment. Don’t jump to conclusions or rely on assumptions. Make sure to hear the complete statement and ask questions to make sure you understand. Judging or arguing prematurely is a result of thinking about a response while the other person is still speaking. This hinders the ability to be able to listen closely to what is being said.
- Respond appropriately. One can only respond appropriately if we’ve listened and understood what the other person has said. Remember, listening and hearing are not the same thing.
Active listening is different than passive listening. Active listening is an interaction between speaker and listener. Passive listening is simply taking in what the other person says without any comment or feedback. Passive listening doesn’t create dialogue and understanding.
Leaders who incorporate these five steps into their everyday behavior will strengthen their communication skills.
A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group. Contact him through www.marineleadershipgroup.com.