Without communication skills there can be no leadership success, as anyone knows who’s made it past the first year on the job. As you moved into your first management positions, you learned how your skill in verbal, nonverbal, and written communication combined to help you get your organization’s work done through others.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the fine line between a skilled communicator and an over-communicator. Over-communicators mean well, but don’t know where to draw the line. Could you be one?
Face to face
In face-to-face communication, over-communicators get caught up in showing everything they know about a subject. They frequently rely on PowerPoint decks. (Read aloud from the screen is a dead giveaway.) If someone else gets a word in edgewise, they often rephrase or clarify what the other person has said, grabbing the “talking stick” and running with it like a golden retriever. If they do ask questions, it feels like a survey or an inquisition, not an invitation to give-and-take.
Are you a face-to-face over-communicator? Here’s a test:
- One hour after a meeting, can you recall the most important thing each of the other participants said, without looking at your notes?
- When a meeting includes a meal, have others finished their food before you make a dent in yours?
- Do you interrupt other people? Be honest.
Many of us grew up in families where there was never a lull in the conversation. If we didn’t interrupt someone else, we never got a chance to speak. If that describes you, it’s time to unlearn that behavior.
In your in-person communications, try these behaviors instead. Face the speaker, and make eye contact. Assume a relaxed, attentive posture. Listen without jumping to conclusions; do NOT let yourself start formulating the wording of your response. To hold your attention on the speaker, try to picture what he or she is saying—literally create a mental model or string of images. Jot down key words or phrases if that helps you stay focused. When the speaker comes to a pause, ask any questions you need to clarify your understanding. Then—and only then, start communicating. When you do speak, keep these values in mind:
- Are you being succinct and focused on the key point, not how you got to there?
- How are others better off for hearing your ideas?
- Are you using stories and examples to help others understand your ideas?
- Are you making it clear how others profit from your ideas?
Over-communicators contribute to information overload raining down, from multiple streams on multiple screens. If you are the over-communicator in writing, you are actively inviting people to hope your computer crashes, your devices run dry, and your Internet connection goes down. The problem is that by over-communicating you practically require others to over-communicate. No wonder they get testy.
Are you an email over-communicator?
- Do you start discussions in email between meetings?
- When you are asked for information, do you share everything you know?
- Do you inundate people with information before it is relevant to them?
Email can help groups work effectively, but we have more communication tools available. Minimize email and make it impactful when you do use it, by following these suggestions:
- Choose the right channels. Discussions between meetings are more productive when conducted in online forums, such as a Base Camp project or private online community.
- Use good email etiquette—address to only those who need to know, with a succinct subject line. In the body, write with telegraphic brevity and start new paragraphs frequently to make onscreen reading easier. If you have more information to share, suggest a conversation.
- Group your information by date, sending only when others need to know it. It’s easy to use your calendar to “park” information for distribution when its relevance increases. Send too early and it will likely be overlooked.
Our written communication takes on a life of its own. Don’t give birth to more writing than is absolutely required; the pace of business simply doesn’t allow for extended reading, and documents have a mysterious way of ending up where they don’t belong. And most important of all—recall that writing is an extension of human interaction, not a replacement for it. If you sense tension increasing, Get on the phone, Skype, or face-to-face.
Make it insane
At the beginning of 2014 I began posting on the theme of “52 Questions for Insane Relationship Conversations”—conversations that provoke and catalyze action, whether that means taking functional relationships deeper or causing relationships we need to shed to get on with it. I choose to call these conversations “insane” because they boldly break the rules of “normal, nice” behavior that require us to stay superficial and homogenous, for fear of creating controversy or standing out. I’m coming from a deeply rooted desire for more substantive conversations between friends and colleagues alike. I want to find out who we are when we stand before each other, heart and soul exposed.
To make it insane, we have to stop over-communicating about the small stuff, and make time for real communication about the real stuff.
- Over-communicators mean well, but undercut their effectiveness as leaders, both in face-to-face and written communication.
- Over-communication in writing can be particularly harmful to group work, because it increases others’ workload.
- Instead of over-communicating about the wrong things, let’s have “insane” conversations that break rules to be intelligent, engaging, and candid.