4 Communication Skills You Should Learn From Top Leaders

The term communication has evolved from two Latin words ‘communicatio,’ which means to share or impart, and ‘communicare,’ which means to make something common. In our day-to-day parlance, it largely includes the sharing of ideas, concepts, imaginations, behaviors, through verbal and written content, and body language. Communication, today, is a key part of success and growth at work or in other parts of your life. One thing that makes top leaders, like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Winston Churchill, and Oprah Winfrey, stand apart from the rest of the world is their excellence in communication.

Good communication skills are a tool that can expedite your career growth and also open up a vast range of alternative careers. If you want to be an effective leader you need to excel in communication. Effective communication is vital to gain trust, gather momentum in the pursuit of goals, and create positive change. In business, communication is a definitive cornerstone to engagement and success.

However, according to this HBR article, global organizations fail at cultivating this crucial skill. A whopping 69% of managers said that they were uncomfortable communicating with their employees in general. They were not able to give directions, communicate vision and culture, recognize achievements, have difficult feedback conversations, and keep employees engaged and focused in the right direction.

Another research done by The Economist Intelligence Unit highlights more specific challenges arising from communication breakdowns:

  • 52% of the respondents reported having higher stress levels.
  • 44% reported having delays or failures in projects.
  • 31% reported having lower morale at the workplace.
  • 20% cited poor communication as an obstacle to innovation.
  • 18% linked ill communication as a barrier to closing a sale.
  • 13% attributed it to losing key clients.

In your personal life too, poor communication is the biggest predictor of marriage problems. According to one study, 67.5% of marriages that ended did so primarily due to communication problems. Communication challenges in relationships include degrading your spouse, speaking before thinking, and playing the blame game.

Communication—or a lack thereof—can make the difference between success and failure – be it your professional or your personal life. Top leaders have practiced and mastered the skills that enable them to communicate so well. Let’s look at what they do and how we can learn from them and apply them to our daily communication practice.

They have two ears and one mouth

And they exactly know why. Top leaders know that listening is a crucial part of communication. A strong leader has an intuitive sense of when they need to dial it up, dial it down, and dial it off altogether. They understand the difference between hearing what someone is saying and actually listening to them.

Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, and author of My Life in Full credited her success at PepsiCo to active listening and creating a culture of recognition. Kevin Johnson, CEO at Starbucks admits that he prioritizes employees’ voices and encourages them to be part of the company’s growth.

Peter Drucker, one of the most influential thinkers on management, said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Good leaders are not only active listeners but also present to look past the surface-level of things and understand what is not being said. Jens Hofma, CEO of Pizza Hut, takes shifts at busy Pizza Hut branches as a way of listening to his employees and his customers first-hand.

Here’s what you can do to improve your listening ability:

  • Have one conversation at a time to give each person your full attention. 
  • Have an open mind and open dialogs with those who confront you, challenge you, stretch you, and develop you.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. 
  • When you speak, know what you’re talking about. 
  • Practice retelling the person’s story in your mind to get better at listening.

They send their egos on extended vacations

Words are powerful, and communication can affect people in many different ways. Great leaders understand this and build a level of authenticity and transparency in their communication. Good things begin to happen when you replace ego and arrogance with a concoction of empathy and care. 

The sooner you drop off your ego and the better you get at acknowledging and understanding others’ feelings and experiences, the more heard and valued they’ll feel. With her motherly, caring aura, Oprah Winfrey is an empath through and through. People trust her because she comes off as genuinely interested in others. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella emphasizes, “Empathy makes you a better innovator.” Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal quips, “arrogance and entitlement impede innovation.” KIND founder and CEO, Daniel Lubetzky, believes that egos can deteriorate relationships and empathy is one of our greatest tools that is most underused. If you want to improve your communication and build a stronger, more productive culture, practice responding with empathy.

Here’s what you can do to replace your ego with empathy:

  • When you talk, take note of how the other person is reacting.
  • Show understanding and empathy when it’s appropriate during a conversation.
  • Be respectful of others.
  • Even if you’re having a difficult conversation, focus on something positive. Top leaders are good at finding the silver lining.
  • Look at things from the other person’s point of view without criticism or judgment.
  • Always keep the relationship above the issue at hand. Address the issue and not blame or degrade the person.

They focus on being brief and specific

Top leaders know that you don’t have to make a long speech to be effective. They understand that effective communication should be a dialogue and not a monologue.

Winston Churchill understood that people are more likely to remember a short but powerful message than a lengthy one. One of his movies to watch is Darkest Hour. In that movie, after Churchill’s famous speech, Edward R. Murrow of CBS News said, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

Learn to communicate with clarity. Make your words count. Transfer ideas, align expectations, spread your vision, and inspire action. All this while being simple and concise. If you are long, superfluous, and confusing in your communication, people will tune you out long before.

Here’s what you can do to start being specific and clear in your communication:

  • Expand your vocabulary.
  • Simplify your message like you’d be telling your child or your grandmother.
  • Ensure you’re still providing enough information while you talk. Don’t be vague or miss important details.
  • Ensure and acknowledge communication boundaries.
  • Summarize the important points. Be conscious and get your point across with less talking.

They ask open-ended questions

Top leaders understand very well that their most powerful tool is communication. Their focus is more on connection than correction. In order to do that, they ask open-ended questions. This provides for a more insightful and qualitative dialogue among the participants, without limiting or influencing them with predefined answers. An open-ended question is one that allows someone to give a free-form answer over a simple ‘yes-no’ response.

People want to be seen, heard, and valued. And the most successful leaders allow this by offering them a voice by asking open-ended questions. Simply providing answers or asking leading questions isn’t very scalable.

In an interview, management thought leader Peter Drucker once said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” Questions unlock and open doors that otherwise remain closed. Richard Thalheimer, the founder of Sharper Image, once asserted, “It is better to look uninformed than to be uninformed.” Connecting asking questions with active listening, American businesswoman and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Mary Kay Ash remarked, “If you listen long enough the person will generally come up with an adequates questions to ask.”

In his book Great CEOs Are Lazy, author Jim Schleckser argues that by constantly providing answers and solutions, you become the constraint to your organization’s ability to grow. By asking questions, you create a two-way communication that increases ownership and provides a conduit for better thoughts and ideas.

Here’s what you can do to quit giving answers and focus on asking better questions instead:

  • Lead with curiosity. Be aware of how your questions will influence the answer.
  • Don’t ask pointed questions that could put someone on the spot. Encourage free flow of information and exchange.
  • Be aware of the exam trap of asking questions (Hows or Whys) that put the listener in the exam mode of a right vs the wrong answer. Remember it’s not an inquisition, it is a conversation.
  • Use the TED acronym (courtesy Jennifer Currence, president of consulting firm The Currence Group)
    • Tell me more…
    • Explain what you mean…
    • Define that term or concept for me… or Describe me an example of what you mean…
  • After asking an open-ended question, do not try to answer your own question. Stop talking.

So, which one of these communication skills would you commit to including in your conversations. They don’t have to be professional or work-related conversations. These skills are ubiquitous and can be applied effectively in personal and social contexts. Take one tip from one of these skills and start applying it to your conversations – maybe you can lead with curiosity and ask an open-ended question or two, or maybe you can summarize the important points in your next team meeting.


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