It is safe to assume that someone on your team didn’t understand what you just said

Carol Kinsey Goman

In my research and work on leadership presence with leaders in 33 countries, I’ve seen these six assumptions that can derail a communicator’s effectiveness:

  1. Assuming that everyone on your team knows why the work they are doing is important (they don’t unless the tie-in to a bigger goal has been clearly stated and reinforced by frequent example).
  2. Assuming that your team knows why a project was successful (they may not be clear about which aspects were due to strategy and which to lucky circumstance).
  3. Assuming that your team knows how to fail successfully (they may be more likely to place blame unless you have a team process to examine setbacks for valuable learning opportunities).
  4. Assuming that people know why you came to a particular conclusion (they won’t unless you let them in on your thinking process).
  5. Assuming that everyone on your team feels valued, trusted, and safe (they won’t unless you have created an emotionally nurturing work environment).
  6. Assuming you have people’s commitment (which is difficult to know unless you ask directly, “Are you with me?”).
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But not all assumptions are harmful. In fact, there is one assumption that I advise leaders to always make: You should assume that at least one person didn’t understand what you said. Some of the biggest problems in business communication happen because we believe we are being clear. We’re not. At least, not to everyone because we are all different in the way we take in information and translate meaning.

An added complication is that, even when leaders aren’t clearly communicating, their staff rarely says, “I don’t understand.” Instead, people may be nodding their heads or taking notes while trying to guess what the leader really wants.

A savvy leader follows up important statements with clarifying phrases such as:

“Here’s what I mean by that ….”
“Here are the implications of what I’m talking about ….”
“Here’s how I came to this conclusion ….”
“Let me give you an example of (a story about) what I’m saying ….”
“Here’s another way of looking at the situation ….”

Of course, putting ideas into simple, jargon-free words also helps, as does the use of metaphor and analogy to tie new concepts into references that are more familiar. But one of my favourite techniques is one I use when there is a lull in the Q & A portion after a speech. I’ll say: “Here’s a question I am often asked …” or “If I were in your place I might be wondering …”. Then I ask and answer my own question to encourage others to speak up.

To build your leadership presence the next time you chair a meeting, assume that someone on your team didn’t understand what you just said and take that extra step to clarify.

Any questions?

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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