Tag Archive for communication

4 Ways Leaders Don’t Really Listen


(A version of this post originally appeared on CU Insight.)

As the magical line from The Princess Bride goes, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

And our teammates? They may not mean what we think they mean either.

Or what we’re assuming they mean.

Or what we’d like them to mean so that it would make it easier for our position in a discussion to appear to be better than theirs.

Of course this all becomes a bit uncomfortable if I’m the only one guilty of these things, but carry on we shall.

There seems to be at least four basic ways we “listen” (I’m doing big air quotes here), but don’t really listen. We’re…

1.    Ignoring

Maybe we’re checking our email, or engaged in a heated debate regarding the superiority of name-brand Pop Tarts over their off-brand counterparts, or even deciding whether or not to pursue our lifelong dream of becoming a professional kazoo orchestra conductor; but whatever it is that we’re doing, we’re doing it while another human is there talking to us. We don’t have a clue what that person is talking about because we’re ignoring them.

2.    Pretending

We nod in agreement while that person is talking, and it’s a very well-timed nod of course. We maintain periods of eye contact for as long as the other person does, but as soon as they break eye contact, it’s back to our previous distractions. It could even take the form of us rehearsing in our minds how we’re going to respond to the very thought that’s not yet been entirely expressed by the other person. A strategically placed utterance of “hmm…” never hurts. Are we really listening to people?

3.    Controlling

This one’s tricky because we can convince ourselves that we’re doing our part as leaders if we’re simply sitting there paying attention and not interrupting while someone is talking. The truth is that we can potentially be controlling and manipulative with or without saying a word. People are influenced by other people’s gestures, facial expressions, body language, breathing patterns, audible noises, and so on in addition to their words. We can make people feel inadequate, or like they need to soften their message, or even like they must wholly acquiesce to our every wish if we’re not careful; because the folks with whom we’re speaking are either consciously or subconsciously interpreting all of that stuff.

The scary truth is that some of us are probably controlling without even realizing it. The scarier truth is that some of us are probably controlling intentionally.

 4.    Projecting

An easy way to get a handle on understanding projecting and the resulting frustration it can cause would be to remind yourself of almost any recent presidential debate. Projecting – be it consciously or subconsciously – is a way of life for many politicians, especially in a debate scenario.

Politician A will be prattling on about this or that when suddenly Politician B will enter into the dialogue, finishing Politician A’s thought the way he/she (Politician B) thinks it goes or wants it to go; following which Politician B is so kind as to offer a preemptive response to the argument that he/she partially projected. Many straw men were born this way. (Darn you, Lady Gaga.)

So what’s the point? Listening isn’t as simple and easy as we think it is, and we may not be listening as often or as well as we think we are. Some refer to listening as an art, and if we think of it that way, doing it extremely well is going to take enormous amounts of practice, experience, humility, feedback, and self-awareness. Looking in the mirror is the first and most difficult step.

7 Body Language Myths Leaders Can’t Believe


Based on body language alone, that guy in the background is undoubtedly pondering the deeper things of life. Who am I? Why am I here? I wonder if anyone’s ever been able to open a Capris Sun without some of it coming out the top?

Human behavior is always on leaders’ minds, not to mention it being ridiculously interesting. Personalities, body language, word choice, inflection, tone of voice, phrases people use, eye movements, posture, style, introversion, extroversion, etc — all of them mean something, but it’s not nearly as simple as some might have you believe.

You know the ones. The ones that say something like If you see a person with their arms crossed, they’re disengaged at best and defiant at worst or something along those lines. Or, If someone is fidgety or they speak rapidly, they’re likely nervous or possibly being disingenuous.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not some ill-intentioned thing. It’s just that while those things may be true about some people some of the time, they’re such broad generalizations that they’re almost useless if applied universally to all people in all situations all the time. In fact, they may even be counterproductive in many instances because we’re attributing attitudes to people that they may or may not actually have based on the opinions of some folks with a particularly broad brush.

The thing is that all of those things you’re told to look for as signs of deception or whatever else, may have nothing to do with deception at all.

elviskissingfanSo is body language meaningless then? Should we ignore it altogether? Am I saying we should all just slouch in meetings, roll our eyes when people we don’t like are speaking, and so on? Oh gosh no. Sometimes body language tells you an awful lot (I’m looking at you, Elvis.)

Here are some things to keep in mind though in regards to body language and other non-verbal cues.

1. You can determine someone’s mindset based on a piece of non-verbal communication.

Be careful about isolating one piece of non-verbal communication and using it construct a person’s entire mindset or attitude. Body language cues have to be read in concert with other cues. They also have to be place in their appropriate emotional contexts, and must be interpreted in the context of the person, place, situation, etc.

For example, people sitting with their arms crossed could mean they’re resistant to what’s being said, or it could mean they’re cold, or it could simply mean that’s a comfortable position for them at the moment. That’s why we’d be looking at that along with a number of other things to give us insight into how someone might actually be thinking and/or feeling. It’s not fair to rubber stamp everyone based on the body language template.

2. If someone doesn’t look you in the eye as often as you think they should (how often do they have to, by the way?), they’re likely being dishonest. Or something.

Lack of eye contact doesn’t always mean something negative. For example, the INTP often breaks eye contact, but it’s not because of anything related to dishonesty or lack of confidence. It’s because they often think through things quite differently than other folks, and so they’re locked away in their own heads thinking about the inane interview question you just asked them. :)

Seriously though, some studies have even showed that the truly dishonest (see what I did there?) folks actually engage in greater eye contact. Why in the world would that be the case? Because they know those are behaviors that people use to determine the veracity of what they’re saying. A truthful person can wander off with their eyes because there is no need to convince, only to convey their thoughts.

And really, how weird would it be if someone did not break eye contact with you during the entire course of an interview or meeting? That’d be equal parts awkward and creepy, yes? (Quit looking at me like that.)

3. People who cross their arms are generally in opposition to what is being said or to the person saying it.

Their arms being crossed doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hostile. They might be cold. They might just be comfortable that way. Heck, it could be that whole psychological reciprocity thing. Someone saw someone else cross their arms and so he or she imitated the action almost subconsciously at times.

4. People who are fidgety are probably hiding something.

Or…we can understand them as possible signs of nervousness. You know, like the kind of nervous someone might get in important discussions like interviews, disciplinary actions, and so on. It doesn’t always mean what you think it means.

5. Someone who is speaking at a rapid pace is probably lying.

And for the love peanut butter and pick-up-stix, if you believe that, do not — I repeat, do not — give yourself a sticker for today; because you’re wrong. It will sound like I’m being a smarty pants and don’t actually mean to this time, but sometimes people talk fast because…well…they talk fast.

6. Nose touching and mouth covering are universal signs of deception.

Or, they’re often normal human reactions in what they perceive to be stressful situations. It has a sort of pacifying effect on some. Or maybe their allergies are bothering them. And heck, if they’re about to sneeze, let’s not penalize them for covering their mouths and not spraying their nastiness all over the place.

7. People who are smiling while speaking are generally happy and truthful.

That may be the case, but it also may not be. People smile for many reasons, including from nervousness, fear, or contempt. But again, whatever you do, don’t isolate just this piece of body language to construct what you believe the entirety of a person’s mindset.

Why does it matter? Because, well, we know what happens when we assume things. This stuff is fascinating; there’s no doubt about it. (OK, fine, maybe I just like talking nerdy.) But understanding people — human beings — is at the very heart of our roles as servants and leaders on our teams and within our organizations. Consequently, we need to be so careful that we’re not attributing attitudes and mindsets to people that may not actually be there.

5 Tips for Leaders Who Listen

There just might be something to this whole listening thing. Thanks, Captain Obvious, you might be thinking. What you don’t know is that I actually have a whole superhero get-up I don when I transform into Captain Obvious. Like any superhero outfit, there are tights involved. I’ll spare you any further details.

Listening is one of those funny skills that most people think they’re good at, while most other people think those first people aren’t really all that great at it. If you think about it, it’s a tricky one from a self-awareness perspective. I mean, you don’t actually ever experience what others do when they talk with you because, well, you’re you. You can’t possibly perfectly process how your communication is received and perceived by others.

But that doesn’t give us an excuse to throw up our hands and just continue nodding and smiling when others are talking with us. Leaders within organizations have the responsibility to work hard to listen to their teams. And because the business world needs another list of things to help people listen better, here you go:

1. Don’t assume. (I don’t need to spell out the old adage, right?) People might not be thinking what you think they’re thinking in a given situation, and they might not mean what you think they mean when they’re talking.

2. Leggo your ego. No, not Eggo. Ego. You’ve got to resist the urge to think only about how you’re going to respond to someone as they’re speaking. We all have limited processing capacity (some more limited than others), so we need to focus as much of that energy as we can on the other person or people talking. Listening is about them, not you.

3. Don’t miss the forest. When in conversation or a meeting, try to detect overarching themes in what folks are saying. Their delivery may not be flawless, but focus on the message. Don’t be distracted by every little thing they may flippantly say in the course of their speaking.

4. Know that the speaker may not even know the real message. Intense feelings and opinions can be layered under all sorts of things: verbal clutter, fidgeting, posture, tone, and so on. A great listener figures out what the speaker is trying to say, whether they do a good job saying it or not.

5. Understand the underlying perspective. People approach organizational life differently, and that approach will dictate how they communicate. Understanding those angles will help you better empathize with others.

Thanks for listening. Now I’m going to go back to paying attention to the colleague sitting across the desk talking to me.