I met Juliette through a formal assessment process and when we did the feedback session, I told her that she didn’t have the best communication skills. She’s a very bright executive, an economist with strong academics but when she tried to explain her thinking or give examples she was unusually hard to follow.
She wasn’t happy with the feedback, and that could be because I found it hard to put across exactly what the problem was. She told me she’d always had feedback that her communication skills were excellent. Yet when she was giving examples of how she set about her work, I literally could not understand what she was saying.
The Importance of Clarity
The problem is that if you can’t state clearly what you’ve done, it’s unlikely that you are going to explain clearly to a team what you need them to do. That’s why communication skills are so important for senior leaders. This executive reported directly to the CEO in a large organisation, so she played a critical role in the business.
Many months later, after we had worked together and built a solid coaching relationship, she asked if she could give me feedback. ‘Of course’ I said.
“You’ve been great, but can I just say that I was really gutted when you told me I had a problem with communication skills. Especially because you couldn’t really explain what the problem was. So I talked to a friend who's a psychologist and he helped me to understand it better.”
Parallel Processing and Clarity
He described it as parallel processing. You are making a point, but as you do so, your mind has already moved onto something else – so you dart ahead and start talking about that. Meaning to revert to the original topic, but not always getting back to it. Lots of people do it, interrupting themselves and not finishing a thought, or making a clear point. It makes them hard to understand and it’s very irritating when you engage with them. If you’ve ever been the designated driver at a particularly rowdy dinner party you’ll have seen plenty of the kind of communication behaviour we are describing.
Juliette’s psychologist friend encouraged her to still that busy voice inside her head, the one that jumps around and instead to focus on what she was saying and to force herself to complete a point before moving onto the next one. The advice sounds simple and she tells me that it’s made a huge difference. So much so that she now recognises this tendency in others; which makes her redouble her efforts to keep her remarks concise and to the point when discussing with work colleagues.
The skills involved are focus and mindfulness; if you need to work in this area of communication, it is likely that you might need to thing about focus and mindfulness as well. More on those in future articles.