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The Fatal Assumptions of Executive Communication

I stand in front of high potential leaders, at least once a month, conducting a seminar, giving a speech, or discussing leadership development. One of the standard scenarios I ask these busy, engaged, and effective managers to consider is, “have you ever left a meeting with a colleague and as you travel down the hallway talking about what you just heard, you look at each other with that ‘were you in the same meeting I was in’ expression?”

Of course I get unanimous assent. We’ve all been there. And I’m not talking about the fact that my opinion about what the manager was communicating is different than my colleague’s. I’m saying that what I actually heard the manager say was totally different than my colleague.

This far-too-common an experience is one of the things I investigated in my communication research. What I have found traces back to four common, ordinary, and understandable things all of us do when we are leading and communicating. These actions are so common, that often we do them without consciously thinking about them, and we never intend them to occur. The Four Fatal Assumptions can be explained as what the manager believes has occurred after the communication (or at the end of the meeting). He or she believes that:

  1. Constituents understand what has been communicated.
  2. Constituents agree with what has been communicated.
  3. Constituents care about what has been communicated.
  4. Constituents know how to act in relation to what has been communicated.

These assumptions are at the root of most miscommunication, most continuing disagreement, and most inaction or alternative action, some of which may cause considerable rework.

When I ask these same managers to brainstorm ten things they can do to overcome these four fatal assumptions, they easily and quickly come up with the usual range of responses that can be categorized as reflective listening; using follow-up messages for confirmation, getting others during the meeting to restate understanding, using relevant emotional empathy to engage others true feelings about the matter at hand, asking others for examples of what their future actions might be and why they matter, and citing or prompting a citation of prior similar acts that might be used as a analogy to the current situation.

There are other methods for overcoming these fatal assumptions, but the ones listed above are effective remedies. What is interesting to me, as a researcher, is how easy it is for these managers to list what to do and how sporadically they do it. I offer refer to the knowing-doing gap idea as a result. The problem doesn’t lie in the knowing, but in the doing.

The Three Channel Communication Method

But the biggest part of my research indicates another terrific method for overcoming the four fatal assumptions from the get go. That is to use the three-channel method of communication. The three channels are factual, emotional, and symbolic. Several independent researchers have found that leaders who use these channels consistently and well are considered among the best communicators. They are able to align, motivate, clarify, and inspire large groups of people to engage in cooperative acts that help drive organizational initiatives forward with vigor.

There’s a lot to these three channels – how to collect your facts – how to organize them so constituents see the transparency of your logic – how to display relevant emotional empathy – how to use symbols, analogies, metaphors, and stories well. But those who practice the three-channel craft of communication find they more easily and readily overcome the fatal assumptions. As a result they reduce the need for additional meetings to promote clarity and reduce rework. They inspire others, rather than stifling engagement through confusion. The overall result is a rise, not loss, in productivity.

Independent research based on the three-channel communication methodology shows that leaders who use it most effectively obtain the following results:

  • They receive higher overall communication effectiveness scores from constituents.
  • They are able to move people to action against the communication goals.
  • They are more able to influence a change in previously held assumptions or perspectives.

I don’t know a leader in the world who doesn’t aspire to a greater level of these communication attributes. 

Ron Crossland is co-author of The Leader’s Voice and is Chairman of Bluepoint Leadership Development and a Managing Director for Tom Peters Group, Ltd. He can be reached at [email protected]

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