Most of what we read about improving our communication skills relates to the cognitive or intellectual components of sharing information with others, when in fact the most important issue related to becoming a truly great communicator is the role of emotion.
I’ve spent the last 25 years helping clients communicate with greater clarity and impact, a talent I learned as a journalist and White House correspondent early in my career. I focused on the cognitive part of what is shared with others, such as how to better organize content or make better use of visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint). My first talk as a Vistage speaker, now with over 300 presentations, was on “Cutting Edge Communication Tips for Corporate Leaders.” What I have discovered over the last two decades of consulting on communication is that excellent communication correlates much more highly with connection and engagement than it does with cognition.
Whenever communication occurs, it resonates in the brain on two fundamental levels. First, and most importantly, there is an emotional component of communication. What does it feel like to hear that information? What is the felt experience? Secondly, there is the cognitive part of communication, related to the content of what is being communicated and what that means at an intellectual level.
Striving for clarity when sharing information with others is essential to the effective conveyance of our content. But, as the latest neuroscience confirms, so too is understanding, which provides the context and meaning the brain needs to put cognitive information into perspective that allows us to integrate what we have read or heard into our belief system and subsequently our behaviors.
The fact is, the way people feel determines how they behave. If your audience (of any size) is confused by your communication, that felt experience will most definitely have an impact on how they integrate your words and to what extent you will impact their behavior (what they do). If they don’t believe what you say, as another example, the felt sense of a lack of trust will have a negative impact as well. If a manager makes their direct reports feel like they are in a “one down” position, that felt sense of inadequacy or humiliation will impact not only their behavior but their more pervasive view of the entire culture and organization.
On the other hand, when our leaders inspire us, when we feel motivated by what we’ve heard, our behavioral response is congruent with that felt sense. If a manager leads a team characterized by open communication, dialogue, and collaboration, the resulting felt sense of safety and connection resonates at an emotional level and it has clear impacts on the behavior of the team (e.g., loyalty, collaboration, willingness, productivity). Leaders and managers who practice a hierarchical, top-down, and punitive leadership style are more likely to elicit behavioral responses based on fear, antipathy, and resentment. Of great concern here is the resulting impact of these two leadership styles on the customer experience and on relationships throughout the organization. Stated differently, it is impossible to have a high performance culture and high levels of customer loyalty if your employees are not engaged positively.
As leaders, we need to get underneath the cognitive part of communication and gain a much more thorough, accurate, and effective understanding of communication’s role in creating a high performance culture. The very reason we developed the ability to communicate as a species was to connect and engage with others. We are, at our core, social animals and virtually everything we do is related to our need for connections with others. That is the fundamental role of communication, and leaders who understand the role of communication, in addition to the function of communication, will rise to a new level of effectiveness with both internal and external audiences.