The Most Important Trait in a Leader - Communication Skill

communication leadership

Verbal communication is usually the first thing we think of when we consider communication. But there is actually a lot more to communication than just the words we use.

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The nonverbal cues we use when we speak, such as our tone of voice, eye contact, hand gestures, and body language, are just as important as the words we use.

In fact, research shows that up to 93% of all communication is nonverbal. The cues that your team picks up on are subtle but important. Managing these signals is critical if you are going to build a high performing team.

The Most Important Trait in a Leader - Communication Skill

1. What is Communication?

Communication is a process that facilitates the exchange of information and meaning through a channel between two or more people engaged in face-to-face interaction. Communication happens verbally and non-verbally. The pitch, power, and tone of your voice relays huge amounts of information. Your hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions all commuicate to your team. Sounds like a lot of information you're radiating probably. Yeah, it is.
Communication is always happening even if you're not aware of the messages you are sending.

1.1 A leaders guide to understanding what verbal communication is

Verbal communication is any form of communication that involves the transfer of information from one person to another through speech. This includes the written word, speech, and the presence of a person. It's pretty straightforward, we all know what verbal communication is - speaking to another person. Now, doing it well is hard, but understanding what it is, well, that's simple.
You may find this TED talk on communication helpful if you're trying to up your game.

1.2 Non-verbal communication

Nonverbal communication is any form of human communication that excludes the use of language. Nonverbal communication is often contrasted with verbal communication, which typically involves the use of words to exchange information. Nonverbal communication is also sometimes referred to as body language because it includes movements, gestures, and changes in posture, among other physical behaviors. Verbal communication and nonverbal communication are of equal value. They communicate different things, but both are important to effective communication. Let's nix the idea that one is “more” important than the other.
Here's a great non-verbal coaching session again, courtesy of TED.

2. How does Communication Work?

Listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
Communication requires two people: you, and the other person. We also call this the sender and the receiver. A sender is the person transmitting the message, and a receiver is the one receiving it.
The sender uses verbal communication and nonverbal communication to create meaning through the message. The receiver decodes the meaning to form a response.
Notice that I put the receiver on the same level as the sender. We often think the power in communication lies with the sender, but the receiver plays a significant role too.
To fully understand communication, we have to consider both the message and its meaning. Meaning is derived from the receiver’s frame of mind, knowledge, beliefs, and expectations. The key is that every receiver will have a unique meaning for any given message. 

2.1 The Channel

Not all communication has to be face-to-face, though it does express the majority of our communication. It's important to be clear when you're communicating and what channel you are using to do so. Is it an email? a text? a meeting? or a phone call? The channel of communication refers to how information is sent and received. Choose wisely taking the other parties preferences into consideration.

2.2 The Message

When you are facing a problem or a situation at work and want to communicate a message to your team, it can be very difficult to get the message right.  Either you are not saying what you mean or you mean something that you haven't said.  Either way it will lead to confusion for not only you and your team but also your customer or client.  Having the right words to say the right thing can be a difficult thing to master but with a bit of practice and perseverance anyone can do it.  So what are the things that you should take into consideration when communicating a message to your team?
First, write your message a series of bullet points. This clarifies your key points. No filler words allowed, it's all message and very clear. A good bullet point would be "missed last deadline" because it's short and clear. This bullet would remind you to state that the team missed their deadline. A bad bullet point would be, "make sure everyone knows they are valued and they need to speed up work to ensure the next milestone is delivered on time". As you can see, that bullet point is way too long. So, you get the idea. Distill your thinking and write 4-6 word bullet points.

Need help being brief and effective when you communicate?  You may find The Brief Lab's free downloads useful.
Be brief when you speak. The longer you speak the more likely you are to get confused. Have 3-5 bullet points and get your message out clearly.
This video might seem simple, but trust me, it's worth watching.
Have a good conclusion. Think about your ending, what you want to leave your team with. It could be a question, "What can we do today to ensure we meet our next milestone on time?" It could be a word of encouragement, "I know it's been a tough week, but I'm proud of you and I'm glad we get to solve this problem together". Know how you want to close your remarks.

2.3 The Meaning

People take their own meaning and relevance from what you tell them.  They are probably not taking the meaning you want them to take away.  It's all about clarity of thought and understanding the clarity of what you are trying to say.  If you aren't clear, others probably won't be.  If you leave people confused, they will likely take the message you didn't mean to give.  When you do have clarity of thought, your message will have clarity of meaning.  Think about what you are saying.  Think about the words you use, the tone you use, and the speed you speak at.  If you can get those 3 things down, the meaning of what you are saying will be crystal clear.
Want to nail your words, tone, and speed? Practice in front of a peer or coach and ask for feedback. That might be the only honest feedback you get on your remarks. If you don't have a coach that's no problem, record yourself however you can and watch the recording. This lets you be your own coach.

2.4 The Channel & The Message & The Meaning

The Channel is how your audience receives your message.  Some channels are more effective than others.  Would you rather send a text message to someone you care about or give them a handwritten note?  

In the 21st century, the channel you use will enrich (or detract) from the meaning of your message.  

The context of the message would be different in a face-to-face conversation than it would be in a text.  It's all about the channel.  If you're conducting business, it's always best to do it in person or over video.  

However, if you ever need accurate documents or information, always make sure you ask for and get them in writing.

3. Why Communication is important

Communication is critical to business because it is one of the pillars that holds up an organization. Communication allows internal teams to work together and provides an avenue for the organization to move forward.  
Communication is part of the infrastructure of an organization.  It is through our communication that we build a network of support for each team member.
 Communication happens on a daily basis and serves as a way for teams to work together, remove impediments, and synchronize work.  
The most successful teams are well organized and communicate through each step of the process.  They work together with open communication to complete projects.

3.1 Trust and Respect

Communication takes trust and shows respect.  If you want to build a team that respects you, you need to communicate consistently and with intention.  
You also need to be able to understand what is being communicated to you.
To take a moment to stop and think about what is being communicated to you.

Here are a few good tips and tricks to be a better trust builder 
  • Asking the team member what they mean by what they said can help clarify and sharpen thinking
  • Asking someone else if they heard the team member correctly
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand what you were being told - Ask why you were told that or why something was done
  • Don't respond to a message personally, take a moment to think about why the person was sent the message

3.2 Good Communication is Good Leadership

Good communication is essential to good leadership.  You cannot lead when you are not communicating.  Bad communication leads to confusion on your team and can create confusion.  Confusion leads to lack of confidence in you as the leader because your team won't understand you and will be surprised by your decisions when you make them.  
Lack of confidence leads to lack of motivation.  Lack of motivation leads to lack of commitment.  Without commitment your team will fail.  It's impossible for your team to succeed if you aren't effectively communicating with your team.

4. What problem are we here to solve?

If you are problem solving in a meeting, be very clear about the problem.  All too often I see people who start a meeting trying to solve problem "A" but spend their entire meeting discussing problems "B, C, and D".  Be clear on the problem at hand and keep on topic.

4.1 What's Your Point of View?

When you're problem solving the most common mistake is to fail to take everyone's point of view into consideration.  You should seriously consider taking everyone's point of view into account.

Do this by asking, "what do you think?" if you notice someone quietly observing the meeting.  Invite participation and let everyone know "I'm just taking it in" is fine if that's what they are doing.

4.2 What's my perspective?

You can share your perspective, but wait till the end.  I've had plenty of instances where I've let a team solve a problem and never shared my perspective.  Why?  I didn't need to.  The team came up with an adequate solution.  It's a gift to let a team implement their own solution.

4.3 What will we do next?

Always clarify what will happen next including the who, what, where, and why.  Never let a team event end without a clear and shared vision of what will occur after the event is over.

5. The value of a summary when you're done

5.1 Here's what I took away

Wrap up all your events and meetings with a quick recap of what you took away from the event.  It could be something simple like, "this problem is more complex than I expected and we probably need to tackle it after we've had a chance to study it more".  That's fine, just provide everyone a recap.

5.2 Here's what I think we agreed on

Did everyone agree to something specific?  In your recap state it clearly by telling everyone, "here's what we agreed on...".  Clarity is your best helper.

5.3 Here's what should happen next and when it will happen

It's time to provide everyone with a recap of what will happen next and when it will occur.  With everyone playing from the same sheet of music, you'll be well positioned to accomplish your goals. 

Questions to consider

Here's a helpful guide and diagnostic set of questions you can ask yourself to see if how you're doing.
  • Are you communicating often enough?
  • Are you communicating the right goals?
  • Are you giving your employees enough context to understand what they need to do?
  • Are you open to their feedback?
  • Are you open to accepting criticism?

Communication pitfalls to avoid

Bad communication comes in all shapes and sizes, and can plague an entire team with a sense of disconnection. Here are three ways to avoid bad communication on your team.

  • Withhold important information
  • Give vague direction
  • Confusing important facts and figures
  • Speak over others
  • Dismissive answers


Every leader, especially the aspiring leader, must be an effective communicator. Organizations need leaders who know how to coach people, build relationships, and express their views persuasively. Today’s leaders need to be more than a “big personality” or a star performer. They need to communicate effectively.

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