Skills for effective leadership: Correcting communication breakdowns

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” – Lee Iacocca

Communications break down for many reasons—messages go undelivered, are misunderstood, or are incomplete. It’s on leaders to own their communications, whether they hit the mark or not. But with the right techniques, you can overcome breakdowns and become a more effective communicator.

When you’re communicating a message, you want to make sure you’ve identified the key priorities and impact points with your audience. If you don’t, and there’s a misunderstanding or a misstep, that’s on you.

Avoiding messages that are misunderstood or incomplete can be as simple as using a tried and true military technique called the “brief-back”

  • What did you hear?”
  • “What are your next steps after this meeting?” 
  • “What else can I tell you?”
  • “What are the three most important things you are going to do now?”

Using this technique after every meeting or important conversation will confirm they heard what you needed them to hear. In the same way, this technique is valuable when you, as a leader, are on the receiving end of a communication, whether from your leader or from someone you lead. Get in the habit of confirming, “Just to make sure I’m clear, I want to reiterate what I heard…” before ending the conversation.

This technique is helpful to do not only after meetings but also during meetings as well, especially if the meeting is off course. “This is what I’ve heard so far, somebody tell me if I’m not on the right path.” Articulate what’s happened and what you think needs to happen next. If the meeting is still scattered, use a centering brief-back question like, “What problem are we trying to solve?” to make sure everybody can articulate something to get things back on track.

Remember, when you’re in a meeting, many people have questions they’re afraid to ask and may be confused at one point or another. You want to make sure to fully close the loop so people understand what’s being said and know what to do next. Whether it’s a quick conversation or a marathon, it’s the same process—you can’t simply assume your message is being received and people are going to run with it. Confirm it, and if there’s a breakdown, try again.

Sometimes, communication doesn’t happen because messages aren’t delivered. Obviously, those breakdowns are on you to correct. It’s important for you to be able to pinpoint specific examples and then question yourself: “Why am I avoiding doing this, and how can I approach it differently?” 


Continue reading the next blog in this Communication Series: Skills for effective leadership: 5 keys to master effective communication

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