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20 Jun '13

You heard what? Communicating well

Posted by T.J. Addington in communication
I am often amazed at what people "hear" compared to what I thought we "said." It is a challenge in any organization (the church being one of the most complex) to communicate in a way that people actually understand what we are trying to communicate. It is not that people don't listen. It is that there are many messages competing for people's attention and the more complex the organization the more attention there needs to be to what and how we communicate.

Organizational trust is very much tied into good communication. When people understand where their leaders are taking them and what is important to the organization trust grows. When they do not, trust diminishes.

The first and most important job of any leader is to clarify for the organization who it is, where it is going and how they are going to get there. Indeed, one of the greatest frustrations of congregations and ministry organizations is the absence of clarity on these critical issues. Congregations and ministries become restless and unhappy in the absence of clarity. They are less concerned about what the direction is than they are about knowing the direction.

Good leaders ask several questions regarding communication on a regular basis.

One: They ask, "What do people need to know?"

People need to know with clarity the mission of the organization, the non-negotiable guiding principles, the culture you desire to create and the central ministry focus (what you do day in and day out to accomplish your mission). They also need to know any key directional changes that you are making (surprises are not welcome). And they need to know where you as a leader want to take the ministry.

Two: They ask "How do I communicate simply and clearly?"

Here is the rule: The more simply and clearly I can communicate what I communicate the better it will be heard. Leaders think carefully before they communicate so that their message is most likely to be heard and understood. Simple and clear communication wins every time. Complex messages will not be understood or are often misunderstood.

That is why I lead from a sandbox where the four sides of the sandbox represent the four most important things those in our organization need to know and live out (The book, Leading From the Sandbox explains the paradigm). Everyone can remember the four sides of our sandbox and if they do, they remember the four most important things for our organization.

This raises a second issue. When leaders do not communicate simply and clearly and when they do not communicate the same thing over and over, clarity is lost to confusion. Good leaders communicate the same key messages over and over and over with the same vocabulary so that the very vocabulary used becomes the vocabulary or short hand of the organization. Ambiguity fosters confusion. Simple clarity fosters understanding.

The greatest leaders are those who can communicate complexity with simplicity! It is a skill that can be learned but it takes the discipline of figuring out how to communicate the complexity of your ministry with simplicity. And then stick to it.

Three: they ask: "How can I know if they understood what we said?"

This is a very important question. Good leaders never simply assume that everyone understood what was communicated. Often people hear the message but make their own assumptions about what it means in the framework of how they view the organization. Especially, when leaders are bringing change they need to ensure that people really understand.

There is a simple way to ascertain the level of understanding. Good leaders find forums to dialogue with various staff teams on a regular basis where they again communicate with simple clarity those things the organization needs to know. Then they engage in dialogue, asking questions, answering questions, talking through the implications of what has been communicated.

Through dialogue leaders are able to understand where they are not being understood and therefore hone their message for greater clarity. They are able to clarify what is not clear and they pick up on areas where their people are having a difficult time grasping concepts or ideas.

Through extensive dialogue like this all over the world, I have a fairly good grasp on which issues in our sandbox are well understood and which are fuzzy. That gives me valuable information on where I need to continue to clarify and help simplify complexity.

Leaders communicate well when they are clear, when they simplify complexity, when they consistently communicate the same simple messages and when they dialogue with their people to ascertain what the level of understanding is. And, they never take communication for granted. It will either help them or hurt them in what they are seeking to do.