Direct by listening, govern by communicating

Enrique Sueiro. Professor. IE Business School

26 February 2016

Communication starts with listening. Such a simple premise, yet it’s often forgotten in the current era of noise, and also needs to be followed up by doing what you say, and saying what you do.

People often confuse the ability to communicate well with a tendency to talk too much. It’s possible to convey a lot of messages that result in a lack of communication, increasing levels of uncertainty… it’s a problem that can be both seen and heard all too clearly in the current era of noise. 

In this scenario productive silence deserves some praise, given that it makes it possible to listen in order to understand, beginning with one’s self. Just like all good things, it requires a certain amount of prudence, without which it can be lethal, and, in the case of communication, can soon take the form of a toxic silence. 

It’s not easy to know when to shut up, nor, if you opt to talk, provide the right doses of what, when, how much and how.  There are situations in which it is unwise to keep quiet, for several reasons. First and foremost because it can compromise truth, the bastion on which freedom of people and of society rests.  Lying taints communication. 

Leadership is another reason for speaking out, and should be proportional to the public responsibility of the person who is supposed to be a leader. I say supposedly because the ability to be a leader does not automatically come with the job. Moreover, it’s obvious that some people in very high positions destroy their claim to leadership through ignorance and/or inexperience when it comes to communication. Such an inability is the same as using words to extol the virtues of communication, only to discredit it with actions. As always, being exemplary has far more impact than citing examples, and authority, like prestige, comes from being recognized by others, rather than talking about one’s self. 

A third reason for speaking out is that silence in the face of public discussion affords your adversary’s argument more weight, space and time. Even in critical situations, avoiding cameras and microphones means losing opportunities to explain yourself and transmits a feeling that you have something to hide. Also, it validates the paradox that people who know something don’t say anything, and those that say something don’t know. This sad state of affairs is even worse when a person who is demonstrably incompetent happens to speak eloquently.   

A fourth reason resides in a medium and long-term timespan, and affects reputation. Although more extensive and deeper analysis is required, it serves to remind us of obvious signs that might be overlooked. Listen deeply and in a timely manner in order to detect foreseeable crises. React with prudent swiftness and get in first to lead the communication process. Ask for forgiveness and the chance to restore honor or money, depending on the situation. Follow up the matter and ensure it is resolved, etc.

In any organization, public or private, seriousness is compounded when the silence of whoever should be there affects people’s lives, or taxpayer’s pockets, or social mood. First things first, communication begins by listening. This basic premise requires some follow-up. Do what you say, and say what you do. Yes, you have to speak, use your command of the language and remember that what you say is not the main thing about communication, but rather how others perceive what you say. Shaping perceptions is an essential skill when it comes to managing businesses or institutions, and even more so when power hinges on the changing wishes of other people.

Supposed leaders are making a mistake when they communicate solely in terms of data. Although data is doubtlessly necessary, such leaders underestimate the context and emotions, which may be less tangible but are more important. This mistake helps to explain why occasionally good decisions and positive messages are rejected because of the way they are communicated, and why, when messages are negative, they can have an even worse impact if good communications skills are lacking.

It is also noticeable how some people see preaching about listening, understanding, dialogue, motivation, etc., as being compatible with a life where facts do not add up with what they say. It’s true that the best communication in the world cannot make up for bad management, and that bad communication can discredit good management. Based on how people affected perceive them, the most effective messages tend to be few, clear, pleasantly worded, timely, and delivered by someone who is credible.  These five qualities cannot be improvised. There should be barely a mention of credibility. Humility must be the order of the day in order to recognize that it is one’s self who can harm the credibility of a message or a decision. 

These are ideal times for refining the way we communicate, or in some cases to start communicating, to read between the lines and between the numbers, to make the vast amount of good stuff look nice and make the bad stuff look bearable. One of the most important criteria for a movingly human yet corporate form of communication is something known in the medical field as “a bearable truth.”  In this expression the noun is just that, a noun, and the adjective adds the human touch. In practice, achieving the right blend of both these things is a big challenge, given that the truth has to be told in an intelligible manner (avoid incomprehensible experts) and without unnecessarily worsening the damage that a painful reality can do. Giving priority to the truth at the cost of benevolence brings unavoidable pain, while prioritizing delicacy over truth makes for sterile sentimentalism. You direct an organization if you listen. You govern if you communicate.

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