How Most Leaders Communicate
According to our BOLD research, at least 53% of leaders have felt their communication could be bolder.
Most communication begins without setting CONTEXT; leaders dive into CONTENT and wonder why people are surprised, don’t agree or don’t want to follow them. We start talking, get into details, provide feedback, propose new ideas, and listeners don’t know what hit them.
Brain science reminds us that people hate surprises, because surprise equals ambiguity. At best, people are unclear or uncertain and at worst, they feel threatened. Either way, the brain interprets both of these with the natural “survival” reaction by saying no, disagreeing, shutting down or digging in to their own opinions with almost no chance to get them to hear or do what you want.
This is akin to sitting at a table and someone slaps food down with no plate, cutlery, or tablecloth. ‘Here you go – eat what I’m serving!’ And you wonder why they feel jarred and don’t want what you have to offer!
Conversations, like meals, need setup. The more someone may not agree or could feel threatened, the more intentional you need to be to enroll them.
Set the Table
The tool has three key steps. You can use it at home and at work, with individuals, teams, and organizations.
1. NEUTRAL TIME: Tell them ahead of time. Before you plan to change your behavior, give the feedback, make the request, set the table. It could be an email or conversation setting up your intention. It could be a question to make sure they’re ready, or a double check that this is a good time. This happens BEFORE you “serve the meal.” It can also be throughout the conversation.
Examples: Your kids say ‘I want to tell you something and I don’t want you to be angry.’ Perfect table setting (learned it from them!) No matter what they say, you’ll likely stay cool.
Before giving feedback: ‘I have an observation that could be helpful. Would you like to hear it?’ If they are usually defensive, you can ask, ‘Do you want me to be 100% transparent or closer to 75%?’ They’ll be ready because they will have asked for it.
2. IN THE PAST: Tell them how it has been. Mention how things have been before today. Your enrollment will be even stronger if you own something about your own behavior. ‘What I have been doing that might have felt micromanaging is…’ If you take accountability for the situation being what it is, it is often disarming and creates a safe space for others to hear (and follow) you.
Examples: ‘In the past, when you brought me problems to solve, I went into fix/solve mode and I have set everyone’s expectations to come to me with issues instead of solutions.”
3. IN THE FUTURE: Tell them what you would like to create or have them (or you) do differently. You “set the table” for the vision for the future, the new behavior, or the ask. Once you tell them, pause and listen to their reactions. Use your coaching skills to navigate and possibly negotiate for how to do what’s being asked.
Examples: ‘Going forward, I’d like for you to bring your best recommendation if you bring a problem to solve.’
It works in our personal lives, too. “In the past, I did all the meal prep during the week. Going forward, I’d like to figure out a new strategy so we all share responsibility in the cooking.” (This one is truly possible!)
Common Influencing Situations
There are many examples of where leaders want to be bolder, have stronger executive presence and influence more effectively at work and at home. The greater the challenge, the “fancier” (i.e. more thoughtful and strategic) the table setting.
Here are common situations and examples we often hear in BOLD leadership and team sessions:
1. Speaking up in meetings
- In the past, I didn’t speak up unless my opinions were fully formed
- Going forward, I will share my ideas earlier even when they’re not “perfect”
2. Providing feedback
- I have input that could be helpful – would you be interested in hearing it?
3. When you want others to change their behavior
- In the past, our meetings have been mostly me (the leader) talking most
- In the future, I’d like to have all of us consistently engaging
- I need to talk less. What do you think would be helpful to have everyone participate more?
4. When you want to provide a decision or news that might be challenging to hear
- I know you were hoping this would turn out differently. I’d like to tell you the details of what I know and I’d like you to stay curious and open so we can discuss how you’re feeling and identify what you’re needing. Does that work for you?
5. When you want to change how things have been
- In the past, I nagged you about the cleanliness of your room.
- From now on, I plan to stay quiet about your room. And, I’d like you to keep all your things in your room instead of leaving them all over the house. Would that be a fair deal?
6. When you want to create a different working dynamic
- For this meeting, you will see me being 10% more direct than I have in the past. I’ll give more straight feedback and requests because I care and am committed to your success as a team. And I’d like the same from you with each other. How does that sound?
- Who are the biggest stakeholders in your life you want to influence?
- Pick one: what is one conversation you need to recontract, make a request or provide feedback? (Making Hard Conversations Easy can be helpful)
- What do you need to remember to set the table and engage with this person?
Please feel free to reach out to me and my team if you’d like to connect about how to apply these ideas, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenges you are facing today.
Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health.
Remember to find resources to inspire you here.
Yours in practice,