A leader influences the actions of others by communicating –– conveying information, in everything he or she does.
Paul Watzlawick, the Stanford communication theorist, famously observed that you cannot not communicate.
A useful corollary: You cannot not be interpreted. In other words, no matter what signal you intend to send by your words or actions, the meaning of your communication is subject to interpretation by everyone else.
This can be why humor, sarcasm, cross-cultural references, and in today’s world, just about everything else, can be perceived as so sensitive and subject to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and can be understood as so far afield from “what I intended.”
There is no way to guarantee that your intended meaning will be received and interpreted by others just as you had in mind when you set out to communicate. That’s especially true the greater the number of individuals being exposed to your message.
Still, there are two simple but amazingly powerful steps you as a leader can take to increase the likelihood that your communication will be interpreted similar to how you intended it:
- Declare the purpose of your communication.
- Anticipate how others might interpret your communication.
Clarity of Purpose
Before you speak, before you write an email, publish a memo, dash off a post to social media, or take an action that could be scrutinized, ask yourself, What do you intend to communicate?
Underlying every communication there is a purpose. These include:
- Inform (illustrate, teach)
- Inquire (problem-solve)
- Challenge (provoke, attack, humiliate, dominate)
- Complain (criticize, reprimand)
- Assure (support)
- Relate (empathize, sympathize, bond)
- Avoid (mislead, deceive)
These are examples; the list can go on with other possibilities. The point is to think about and declare in advance the reason(s) about why you are communicating.
Anticipate How Others Might React
The success of your communication depends not only on what you intend for what you communicate, but what reaction it evokes in others. So before communicating, ask yourself: How might others interpret this? (No matter what you intended?)
Meaning ultimately rests in the mind of the other, not in what you intended. Effective leaders communicate with clear intentions and sensitivity to how their messaging is being received.