The Communication Toolbox

We all grow up with our own unique communication style. Some people by nature are very direct. They come right to the point. They tell it like it is. They don’t mince words. Other people are more diplomatic, more indirect, more subtle in their communication. Indeed, there are a variety of communication styles—quiet, loud, forceful, caring, showy, authentic, and many more.

One metaphor I have found helpful in working with leaders to develop their communication skills is what I call “The Communication Toolbox.” The idea is that we each have a communication style that is most natural and comfortable for us.  Usually, it’s a style we began to develop early in our lives or careers, and that somehow has served us well.  But no one communication style is going to be right for all situations, and leaders encounter a tremendous diversity of people and contexts.  Part of being a well-rounded leader means having more than just one tool.

For example, I have worked with leaders who have a “bull in the China shop” way of communicating.  They are highly effective at pushing things forward, but may leave a trail of broken relationships in their wake.  Forcefulness and directness are fundamentally strengths in communication–they are very useful, even a breath of fresh air in some situations.  But in other situations those very same qualities can be dead wrong.  These leaders have just have one tool in their toolbox:  say, a hammer.  They need other tools like listening, empathy and the ability to speak more diplomatically.  The further up you go in an organization, the more important it is to have an broader set of tools in your communication toolbox.

The toolbox metaphor is a powerful way of talking with people about changing their communication or expanding their repertoire.  Leaders are more open to learning new ways of communicating if those around them see that their natural style is an asset at least in some situations.  It’s much more palatable to think in terms of adding more options than it is to think of “fixing a problem.”  I have never seen a leader whose communication style is wrong in every situation.  Usually when there’s a problem, it’s that they just have one communication style and they are using it in too many places.

One of my favorite fictional leaders is Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the Starship Enterprise in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In one episode, the captain is facing off with a Klingon warrior. It’s a tense moment that could lead to a war between their races. Captain Picard approaches the Klingon and, standing only inches from him, speaks forcefully into his face, in Klingon. After a long pause, the Klingon replies, “You swear well Picard.  You must have Klingon blood in your veins.”

The captain’s ability to use a communication style that is very different than his own, but that exactly matches what’s needed in the situation, diffuses the tension and enables them to move forward.

Brave leaders have a whole communication toolbox. What do you need to add to yours?