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Leadership Communication: Did They Hear What You Really Meant

Communication and Conflict

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Robert Burns

Improving leadership communication is a critical part of your leadership development. One way to be more effective is to understand what we don’t hear. With apologies to Robert Burns, we also don’t hear ourselves as others hear us.

In their book, Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain a very important factor leaders must understand when communicating. The superior temporal sulcus (STS). What’s that you say?
It’s a part of your brain, located just above your ear. The STS reads tone and meaning in human voices. The interesting downside about the STS is that it doesn’t work when it hears our own voice. In other words, when we hear other people speak, we can get a sense for underlying meaning based on how the STS interprets the tones it hears. But, when we speak, we don’t hear tones others hear so we may not completely realize how the message comes across.

Try this.

Talk to the voice recorder on your phone for a minute or two, or leave yourself a voicemail message. Then, listen to what you recorded. Are you wondering who that person is on the recording?

If you don’t like to listen to your recorded voice, you’re not alone. Most people don’t and they assume their voice is distorted by the electronic playback. In fact, most modern recording devices produce a very accurate sound record; that really is your voice. Most importantly, it’s your voice as others here it.
What we hear when we speak, is not what others hear.

One of the most important aspects of your leadership development is learning to understand how others interpret your communication. You’re probably thinking, “What are you talking about. I know what tone I’m using.” Well, yes; you know what tone you are intending, but you don’t know what that actually sounds like. That’s why vocalists have voice coaches. Stone and Heen quote opera soprano Renee Fleming saying, “We refer to them as our ‘outside ears,'” and “What we hear as we are singing is not what the audience hears.”

The good news is you can control the tone you use in speaking. You know the difference between a sarcastic tone and a caring tone. So start there. Next, be precise in your word choice. For instance, you might tell someone, “Nice job.” There are many ways this short phrase can be interpreted, even if you try to say it in a nice way. If you say, “I really liked the way you handled the conflict between Jack and Jill in the meeting today,” the intent of your message is much more likely to match the subtle tones in your voice.

Becoming more skillful in leadership communication is a critical part of your leadership development. What are you doing to ensure your team hears what you really mean?

Techniques for more effective leadership communication are included in Common Sense Leadership, on on-line, on-demand course for your leadership development.

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