Assessing your communication skills—as well as knowing how to navigate situations in which you can maximize those skills—will help build your effectiveness as a leader.
One of the secrets to good leadership is communication—but no two leaders communicate in the same way. All leaders have areas where they shine and where they struggle, but those strengths and weaknesses aren’t exactly something you want to be figuring out when it matters most.
So how can you get a handle on your communication gifts? Dan Schwartz, HR communications manager for the accounting firm BKD CPAs & Advisors, focused on this subject in the 2016 book Find Your Fit. His recommended starting point: learning what your strengths actually are.
“If you’re trying to figure out what your strengths are, the best way to do that is to get feedback from those around you,” he says. He suggests asking direct reports for their thoughts, as well as direct peers and people above you in the food chain, with the goal of getting “to where you can do almost that 360-degree feedback.”
Other tips on communicating as a leader from Schwartz:
Find ways to internalize your strengths as a communicator. It’s one thing to be good at communicating, but it’s another to fully have confidence in that ability. Schwartz says that one way to help do this is to actively internalize what you think you do well—a strategy that is especially for public speakers. “Before I go up, I would say, ‘OK, this is something I love to do, this is a strength of mine. I’m good at this,’” he says. “And usually that helps just build your confidence and your performance a little bit, so I think internalizing that is really critical.” He also recommends creating a personal inventory of your skills and past accomplishments that you can build upon when communicating with others. “Start to kind of create that personal inventory, and that will build your confidence as well,” he says.
Be self-aware about your communication deficits. Of course, knowing your strengths also means spotting your weaknesses, which can emerge in the form of responses that tend to be too emotional or too scaled back. Schwartz recommends being frank about the limitations of your own capabilities, and being willing to take a step back before engaging if possible. In his case, he notes that he tends to be highly analytical. “But I also know that that can get me into trouble when I’m communicating with other people,” he says. “So sometimes if someone says something, I might read too deep, beyond the surface, and then all of a sudden now, I might get a little bit too emotional with the response.” Slowing down and knowing what not to say can help ensure a more appropriate response.
Stretch beyond your comfort zone. Remember how your organization was forced to move out of its normal routine at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis? And how hard that was? That is the reality of being a good leader, and as a result, you’re going to find yourself in communication situations that don’t fit your work styles, and you may not know what to do. Again, Schwartz says that trusting your own abilities and your capability to make the right decision could help you move forward. “I think the key word there is trust—just trust in your own strength and trust in your own abilities and just trusting your experience as leading you into good decisions,” he says.
Understand the communication needs of others. Just because your capabilities allow you to thrive in one or two particular modes doesn’t mean those around you share those gifts. Having the ability to adapt as necessary is important, because not everyone will communicate at your speed. “If you are someone who works really fast—I work with several people who would love to work fast, much faster than I do—I would say that affects your ability to communicate because sometimes you make other people feel rushed in the communication,” Schwartz says, adding that it’s not the end of the world to slow down. “If you have to work at a slower pace, just have trust that it will also work out.”
Don’t forget nonverbal forms of communication. The past year has put a heavy focus on written and digital forms of communicating. As a result, leaders have had to adapt—and it’s important to be aware of how our communication styles translate to an email or even a Slack or Zoom window. “Those tendencies in our communication tend to filter through into our nonverbal and written communication as well,” Schwartz says.