Several years ago, a few friends and colleagues formed a book group. We were meeting for the second time as a group, and a woman whom I had never met before joined us. She was well-known and liked by others in the group, and she made many fun and valuable contributions to the discussion throughout the evening. In the months following that evening, we became friends and spent time engaged in deep conversations over tea in local bookstores.
One afternoon, when I was asking her for feedback about some personal and professional growth work I was doing, she recalled the first night she had met me. “I remember seeing you sitting there, saying nothing, and I began an internal eye-roll, feeling frustrated that you had nothing to contribute. I had nearly written you off as a complete bore. But then, near the end of the discussion, you said something and it was one of the most profound comments of anything that had been said all night.”
Truth be told, I still take my time before speaking in social groups. I often wait a while before deciding a group is ready and able to hear what I want to say. If I am going to contribute, I like to be sure my comment will bring value. Yet, thanks to my friend, I have a whole new way of being when time is of the essence. If I know I have only a few minutes to make an impression, I accelerate through my warm-up period and share insights with confidence and clarity. Because of her feedback, I learned that there was a disconnect between how I experienced myself and how others saw me, and I made shifts in my way of being to address that.
When I work with clients on their expressive communication skills, we focus on their part of the interaction. What do they want to create? How do they want to be seen? What is currently working and what is not optimal? What shifts are they willing to make to have a greater impact?
There are two-sides of the street, though.
Years ago, I took my daughter to her well-check visit around her second birthday. Her pediatrician knew from my reports at the 18-month visit that my daughter had an extensive vocabulary and talked non-stop at home. Yet, in the doctor’s office, my daughter said nothing. The doctor asked several questions designed to be no-brainers for a two-year old. My daughter looked at her doctor and offered no response. The doctor continued the appointment as if all was well, yet I could sense her mounting concern at my daughter’s reticence. While I was not worried about my daughter’s intelligence or verbal skills, I began to experience concern about how I could ‘prove’ that my daughter’s verbal skills were on track before our appointment was over.
The doctor began typing information into her computer on her desk, and for the first time since the appointment began, the room was quiet. We listened to the clickety-clack of the keyboard keys for a moment. Then my daughter pointed at the painted wall by the door and said, “Look at how the scale kind of covers the little lamb! It looks like its head is peeking out over the top!”
My pediatrician stopped typing, looked at me with eyes filled with amused surprise and said, “Well, alrighty then!”
When I work with teams on communication and leadership skills, we address this other aspect of communication too. How willing are you to create space for people to speak? How skilled are you at listening for the gold nugget? How able are you to be with people in whatever way they are showing up to find out what their contribution is to the work you are doing? Good leaders are trained to see the gold and help others see it too.
Good leaders are amazing communicators. When they speak, people feel inspired and connected. When they listen, people feel heard and empowered. Good leaders invest a significant amount of their resources maintaining both sides of the street.