As a leader, you’ve probably asked your team dozens of times, “Do you understand?” But I’ll wager you’ve rarely have had anyone respond, “No, I don’t get it.” Instead, they nod, smile, and remain silent, thinking they’ll figure it out later. Some do; some don’t.
The best leaders know that the burden to be understood falls on their shoulders. The person with the message has the most urgent need to communicate it. That’s true even when you’re the person with the problem. If you can’t state a problem clearly, chances are you can’t facilitate a team discussion to solve it.
So how should you take responsibility for making sure your messages are understood?
Leaders Verify They’re Communicating Clearly 4 Ways
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
If we learn anything from TV commercials, it’s that frequency pays. Some sponsors use the very same ad two or three times within a couple of hours. Why? The human brain filters out “noise.” Sometimes we must hear a message six, seven, even eight times before it begins to stick. So if you are changing the way you want your people to handle X process, understand that they’ll need several reminders before that pops into their brain as the “normal” process.
Don’t get frustrated by the fact that you “said it already.” Expect and plan to say it again. And again. And again.
Unpack Your Message in Several Ways
I’m not referring to the broken-record technique that customer service agents frequently use—just repeating the same message in various ways: “We can’t give refunds on products that have been used for more than two years.” Repeated: “I’m sorry. But the receipt says you purchased this two years ago. We can’t give a refund on a product bought that long ago.” Repeated: “Unfortunately, we give refunds on products if they fail during the first year. That’s the extent of the warranty.”
Unpacking your message means to expand your meaning by elaborating:
- “Let me give you a situation where this would apply….”
- “You may be wondering what the implications of this change will be for you. Let me highlight some that we anticipate happening next quarter….”
- “To be more specific about what I mean with this new method of evaluation, let me give you a concrete example….”
- “I’m sure this is going to raise some questions for you. I certainly know that there would be questions in my mind about what I’ve just said. So let me raise some of those issues myself and address them….”
- “What I’ve just said won’t apply equally to everyone and all departments. Here’s why….”
- “Here are some things that are going to be confusing…. So let me give you an example of what we are NOT expecting from you….”
Use Metaphors, Analogies, Illustrations
Here’s an analogy that might work with a technical topic: “When we design the casing for the motor, we’re going to install a little device that operates much like a zipper. So if we need to do maintenance while it’s running, we can just unzip it without having to stop operations.”
Another example: “Our project has always been treated like a cancerous growth on the organization. None of the divisions has wanted to claim responsibility for starting it, and everyone has tried to kill it.”
Here’s a common metaphor in the sales industry: “We hired the wrong applicant for our sales team. She’s a farmer, and we need a hunter.”
These various examples can communicate a big concept in a few words.
Ask for Feedback and Plans Based on Your Message
After you’ve repeated, restated, unpacked, expanded, and illustrated your message, it’s time to verify what others have heard. Not: “Do you understand?” People will either say “yes” or just smile and sit silently.
Instead, focus their attention specifically with questions and keep the ball in your court: “So how long do you think implementation will take?” “What problems do you anticipate in the roll-out?” “What will be your first few steps to get this underway?” “What kind of budget sounds right to accomplish what we need to get done?” “Is this doable in 3-4 weeks?”
With their answers to such questions, you yourself can determine how well they understand your communication.
Communication may be a two-way street—but being a leader demands that you pull the heaviest load.