1. Bolwell, Brian J. MD, FACP

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A common challenge for leaders is in-person communication; some are skilled, but many struggle. The ability to effectively communicate is undoubtedly an essential skill for leadership and it tends to be a central theme in books, research, and seminars. Although it's critical for success, communication skills are rarely taught beyond the basics unless you seek outside counsel from an executive coach or media training.

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In my ongoing study of leadership, I recently completed formal training to become an executive coach. They even gave me a certificate! It turns out, just as with leadership, there is a vast array of literature on coaching. The Center for Creative Leadership has an excellent textbook entitled Compass: Your Guide for Leadership Development and Coaching. This book devotes a chapter to communication, outlining specific barriers to effective communication and what steps we can take to get better at this essential skill.


Attentive Listening

The first barrier to effective communication is that you have not developed attentive listening skills. Wow, give that some thought. Most leaders believe communication to be all about delivering their personal vision or priorities. But before you can be a good communicator, you need to understand your team-their questions, confusion, struggles, barriers, doubts, and fears. The only way to know this is to listen to your team. Ask them questions and truly take the time and energy to listen. You can't know your team unless you engage with them... and listen to what they say. One of the principles of executive coaching is to always be an active listener and resist the temptation to prematurely offer solutions. Hear what your team has to say before you craft a response.


Pay Attention to Emotions

It's important to consider your team's emotional response to the message you're sharing. If you continue on without regard to their emotions, there is a good chance that significant parts of your message will be lost. You will appear to be tone deaf if your communication ignores the downstream consequences of your words.


When delivering a message, directive or initiative, build the time and space for feedback. Be able to articulate not only what you are going to do (and asking your team to do) but how you expect your team to accomplish tasks. If you care about the emotional impact of your message, you can proactively address and mitigate your team's concerns and fears. So learn to speak to the hearts of people. This one is very difficult for physicians who are so data-driven and consumed with numbers. You must acknowledge the emotions of your audience and address their issues directly.


Share the Big Picture...Constantly

Another pitfall is if you fail to convey the big picture to your employees. I think this is common in health care, especially physician leaders. Physicians are very good at presentations that focus on the specific details of a given medical topic. But communication to people who are part of your workforce must be thematic and constantly refer back to the big picture. As a leader, it's your job to ensure your teams understand the rationale for big decisions. Do not overwhelm people with details they do not need to know, but do share how they fit into the organization. You must tie how their work relates to your topic or presentation, cascading back up to the mission, values, and big picture.


Be All About the "We"

Many physicians have a communication style that comes across as too slick or manipulative. I think we have all witnessed this as physicians love to use big words and appear clever. Being confident is great, but not at the risk of alienating others. In order to more effectively communicate, you need to get the perspective of others first, and focus on "we" not "me."


Stop the Spin

Find out what is on the mind of your audience, and address it directly. Discuss the fact that we are all in this together. Next, be straight. Tell the truth. Stop spinning. Give your team credit that they know spin when they hear it. We see this all the time. A leader is asked a difficult question and that leader never addresses the issue. Better to be authentic and say "I don't know" if you don't, or even better, lay out the facts honestly and directly.


Learn From the Best

We all have seen leaders who are excellent communicators. Watch them. Ask them questions about what tools they like to use. Steal their ideas! For me, I like telling stories. It's an easy way to connect with people. Effective communicators are always masters at storytelling. They resonate with others by making it personal.


The fundamental points are these: listen to your team and understand how they feel. Then, be simple and straight. If you are, then you likely are a skilled communicator. No matter what, work on connection and authenticity, skills we can all stretch that will help us communicate.


BRIAN J. BOLWELL, MD, FACP, is Chairman of the Taussig Cancer Institute and Professor of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine. Cleveland Clinic is a top 10 cancer hospital according to U.S. News & World Report.


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Brian J. Bolwell, MD... - Click to enlarge in new windowBrian J. Bolwell, MD, FACP. Brian J. Bolwell, MD, FACP