Influencing Leaders with Language and Logic

TL;DR: Communication skills are essential for personal and professional success, but they are not always easy to master. Sometimes, it can be even more challenging when you’re addressing leadership –people who may think of themselves as excellent communicators – may not be practicing the active listening and mentoring they may regularly espouse.

Sally: “The fish is talking.” The Cat: “Well, sure, he can talk. But is he saying anything? No, not really.” – Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat 2003

No matter what you may think of the film, Mike Myers plays a mean Cat.

And his rhetorical question posed to the children is the way he brushes off the fish’s protests about the trouble he is about to cause, implying that the fish is not really communicating. The Cat is drawing a sharp distinction between saying something and nothing, and that the children should tune him out.

Have you been in meetings like this?

Or worse, have you been the fish with leaders in the position of The Cat, seemingly manipulating your language and logic, cutting into your position and questioning your conclusions and plans?

Now, picture yourself for a moment as a leader in a presentation, a person who has access to more information than anyone else in your organization. (And you may not realize this is an accurate portrayal of your current role and position.) You might think you have a clear picture of what’s going on, but are your preconceptions preventing you from hearing about what’s truly happening from those closest to the topic and action?

In her posts on Communication Matters, Dr. Dawn Braithwait writes that “whether we are negotiating whose turn it is to feed the dog, how to become a parent, how to interact with a difficult co-worker, or how to celebrate with a friend who won a major award, it is in communication that we learn what to do and say.”

For the fish

I’ve read previously that there’s often a gap between how speakers rate their own communication skills and how their listening peers and leaders rated them. No surprise, researchers found that those who felt they were effective communicators ended up overrating their communication skills in four key areas (interpersonal, small group, public speaking, and mass media) as compared to how their audience evaluated them.

Reading Perceiving and Presenting Self – Communication in the Real World (, we may often think of ourselves as fixed and stable, but our self-concepts are more fluid and malleable than we realize. In the article, the authors look at how we might perceive and present ourselves when we communicate, and how we can improve our own self-awareness and understanding.

How can you communicate better with leaders who think they know it all? Here are some tips to help you avoid the common pitfalls and improve your communication skills:

  • Communicate nonverbally. Your voice, gestures, posture, and facial expressions can enhance or undermine your verbal message. Be aware of how you use them. Use nonverbal methods of communication to reinforce your points: lean in, show interest and enthusiasm, acknowledge what you hear through your emotions, and strive to make a good impression.
  • Regulate your emotions. It’s amazing how much this can help or hurt how you communicate. When you regulate how you react, it can help you connect with others, with greater authenticity — but it can also cloud your judgment and may even distort your message. Identifying and recognize your emotions, accept and manage them. With a heightened level of emotional intelligence, you can also better understand the emotions of others and then respond accordingly.
  • Ask for feedback. Feedback is important in so many areas where we connect with others, and it’s vital for improving communication skills. Be sure to ask for feedback from your colleagues, mentors, managers, and coaches on how you communicate and ways that you can improve. Look for feedback from yourself by looking back on your communication experiences and assess how you did, thinking about what you could do differently and improve on your performance in the future. Use the feedback to find your strengths and weaknesses, set goals, and track your progress.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Public speaking or talking to an audience (giving a presentation, a speech, or a pitch) is a learned skill just like any other… and one you’ll likely need to master in your career. It can help you develop your confidence, clarity, persuasion, and influence skills. Make sure you take the time to prepare in advance, know your audience, and rehearse what you’re going to say. Make sure you have a clear structure, use visual aids, practice your delivery, and do your best to manage your nerves.

One of the approaches I’ve recommended to my teams and mentees in the past is to participate in organizations that build these skills such as Toastmasters International (a great organization and one that provides safe peer feedback and camaraderie) and even acting lessons. What I’ve learned in those activities has helped me communicate messages more effectively and confidently.

And a note for The Cats

Leaders, you play more than just a supportive role in these situations. As the authors noted in Are You Really Listening? (HBR), when you’re the executive absorbing the communication, you may be in a bubble where the information you receive is often filtered or distorted. And this is done (good or bad) by the people who want to not just provide information but please you, protect you, or even (hypothetically/illustratively) manipulate you. The bubble can isolate you from the reality and make you miss important signals: opportunities, challenges, junctions, dangers, and more. In this situation, the authors offer a three-step solution:

  • Listen actively yourself. Don’t just hear what people say, but try to understand what they mean and how they feel. Use techniques such as asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing, summarizing, and acknowledging emotions to show your interest and empathy.
  • Create a listening ecosystem in your organization. Encourage feedback, candor, and curiosity from diverse sources. Reward those who speak up and challenge the status quo, and foster a culture of learning and innovation.
  • Stay hypervigilant for listening and demonstrate it. Constantly look for signals and patterns in the environment, seek out different perspectives and viewpoints, and challenge your own assumptions and biases. Model, coach, care is an imperative as others in the room will be watching you, taking their cues on where to press, what to raise in importance, and even how to act.

I hope that this is some practical advice on how to improve your listening skills. I’ve also found that keeping a journal (written or as I’ve evolved, everything now resided electronically in OneNote), seeking mentors and coaches, and using the tools and technology that surrounds us can help. Ultimately, listening is not only a skill but also a mindset that can help you make better decisions and better serve your organization.

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)