4 Signs You’re a Terrible Communicator

Jun 30, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

Visionary leaders like to communicate – a lot. Whether glued to their cell phone, firing up Skype, chatting face to face or just grabbing whomever happens to be passing for a rapid-fire brainstorm, you’ll rarely find them lost for words.

But just because a leader talks a lot doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good at communicating. In fact, many leaders confuse eloquence with clarity, and as a result, often leave the people who work with them bedazzled by their verbal dexterity, but entirely confused about what to do next.

Here are the four cardinal sins of eloquent miscommunication. Which of them are you guilty of?

1. Talking to think.

Visionary leaders (those who think strategically and work with the big picture, as opposed to ‘operator’ leaders who are more focussed on tactical detail) use their verbal communications as a tool to think.

As result, having a ‘discussion’ with a visionary leader often means little more than being present while they externalize their thought processes – and while a seasoned employee or colleague who is used to such monologues learns simply to smile and nod at the appropriate moments, those less seasoned – those who assume they are involved in an actual discussion in which they expected to engage – can find the process entirely bewildering.

And it’s not just bewildering – ‘talking to think’ is also highly demotivating: Frustrated that their attempts to engage are either ignored or glossed over, bemused that their colleague has just talked herself into her own solution, puzzled by the pointlessness (from their perspective) of the exchange, the recipient is often left feeling like a stooge who has been used, rather than a colleague with valued opinions.

2. Setting up Aunt Sallys.

Visionary leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty – they rarely feel the need to grab for an answer as soon as an issue or problem comes along. As a result, they’ll often set up one or two Aunt Sallys – notions, ideas or proposals that are merely hypotheses – a starting point (in their eyes) for rich discussion.

The problem? The ‘Aunt Sally’ comes wrapped in the usual Visionary eloquence and passion, leaving their colleagues unsure whether or not this is indeed just a jumping off point, or a genuine proposal that they are intended to act upon.

3. Encouraging ‘debate’.

Unlike their ‘operator’ colleagues (who prefer action and eschew unnecessary discussion), visionary leaders enjoy nothing more than a robust debate. They like to engage in verbal conflict – as we’ve seen, it’s how they think things through.

Unfortunately, what, to a visionary leader looks like a healthy, profitable exchange of views often appears to others to be little more than a fruitless argument, with all the associated interpersonal fallout: personal attacks, bruised feelings and ruptured (or at least somewhat strained) relationships.

4. Providing the answer.

Ever listened to a friend or spouse sharing a problem then find yourself prating back at them with your brilliant solution – only to find that they didn’t want your clever answer – just a sympathetic ear? That’s the visionary leader on steroids.

Because their leadership identity is tied up in being creative and thinking strategically, visionary leaders find it well nigh impossible to talk about something without providing at least one – often multiple – ‘brilliant’ solutions. Encouraging others to think through issues for themselves, or simply being there as a supportive colleague is not their strong suit. As a result, visionaries often find themselves being bypassed by others who aren’t looking for a clever idea or an innovative solution – but who just want encouragement and fellowship.

Thankfully, the answer to these four pitfalls is straightforward. In my experience, simple awareness is the key. If you recognize in yourself any of these traits, grab a notepad or journal and for one week monitor your interactions with others. After each meaningful conversation, simply jot down the name of the person and the topic, and tick off which trap you fell into. You’ll soon find yourself recognizing these traits in advance and correcting accordingly.