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Why Leaders Should Depersonalize Communication

Researchers have found leaders are more effective in how they communicate when they depersonalize the message. Learn what this means and how to do it.

The following is a guest piece by Dr. Derek Roger and Nick Petrie.

It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Talking comes so naturally to us we tend to forget just how much skill is involved. Even when we’re speaking fast, every word is selected as the appropriate one, from a huge collection we have stored in our brains. We weren’t born with language; all the words, and the rules governing them, had to be learned.

Spoken language, together with the gestures to go with what we’re saying, are what constitutes communication. It is at the heart of what it means to be human, but it all goes wrong when we’re less selective about when, how and what we communicate.

Let’s use a simple illustrative example, from the world of work: you’ve just completed a short proposal for a contract, a task you haven’t done before, and your boss is reading through it. How does she respond? The reply you’re likely to dread, especially if this all takes place in front of your colleagues, is along the lines of “You’ve done a pretty bad job of this. Didn’t they teach you anything at college?”

Unfortunately, feedback to direct reports often carries this kind of blaming tone, and it is hardly surprising that so many engagement surveys highlight the negative effects of poor communication. One solution is to provide communication skills training, but the negative ratings often persist.

The reason is that the principles of conventional communication skills programs may be quite ambiguous. Eye-contact is an example: the rule is that you should maintain eye-contact for a certain percentage of the time, to indicate continued interest, but if it’s maintained for too long the conversation starts to feel like an interrogation!

On the other hand, if you’re conveying complex information, people might break eye-contact because they’re reflecting on what you’ve said, not because they aren’t attending.

Listen, just wake up!

So what can be done to improve communication skills? Our book, “Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success”, describes the Challenge of Change Resilience Training™ program that Derek Roger developed from research on stress and resilience that he began over 30 years ago.

The training assumes that people are asleep most of the time, and the first two steps in the program, waking up and controlling attention, are essential for successful communication. By asleep we mean being in waking sleep – the state you go into when there’s a piece of work you’re avoiding, and you end up instead thinking about what you’ll have for dinner tonight.

Your attention has been snatched away into an imagined world, and since this is a dream, you must still be asleep. Worse still, you might add in ruminating about negative emotion, feeling angry or upset by what you’re thinking about.

In our book, this ruminating about emotional upset is what stress is. It turns the dream of waking sleep into a nightmare, and it makes you miserable as well as having a potentially significant impact on your health.

Everyone daydreams in waking sleep from time to time, but you can’t work and sleep. Even though it might not make you ill or miserable, there’s a significant efficiency cost involved until you wake up and take control of your attention. The effect of waking sleep on communication is obvious.

Remember when you were last speaking to someone and you saw the blinds come down – lights on, nobody home? That’s waking sleep, and ‘communication’ has become a monologue. When someone’s really awake and listening, they become mindful.

Mindfulness has become the buzz-word of the decade, but we need to be precise about what it means. The word implies a question: what is your mind full of? If it is filled with thoughts about dinner tonight or how ashamed and angry you felt when your boss criticised you in front of others, your attention isn’t available.

If instead your mind is filled with free attention, you can respond appropriately to whatever happens in the here and now. To do that, you have to take the last two steps in the training: becoming detached and letting go.

What we mean by detachment is keeping things in perspective. Detached people, in our model, don’t turn molehills into mountains. That allows you to reflect on issues, considering the effects and consequences of actions you might take, instead of catastrophizing about what-ifs and if-onlys.

Taking the example we started with, your boss criticizing you inappropriately, is behaving mindlessly rather than mindfully. Your boss has lost it (and what she’s lost is control over her attention), but you know that she’s under enormous pressure dealing with a significant restructure. This allows you to adopt a detached perspective, acknowledging the difficult current circumstances and not taking her comments to heart.

Depersonalizing communication

What you’ve done is to let go of the negative thoughts that arose, completing the four-step process. You still need to take account of changes that need to be made to the report – you don’t let go of the task, just the negative emotional response. This will protect you against becoming stressed, but there is more to be done.

We can begin by not describing what we say to others as ‘constructive criticism’. Constructing is putting together, criticism is taking apart; they can’t be done simultaneously, and in our experience the phrase is usually used to justify personal attacks. How does the person on the receiving end feel? Probably upset and ruminating about it.

Leaders understand the effects of what they say, and act as mindfully as possible, but many managers will respond by saying that they have to tell people when they’ve done something wrong, and that there’s no way to avoid criticism. Not true, but to resolve the issue you have to depersonalize communication.

There are three components to the scenario: you (the manager), me (your direct report), and the work (the report itself). What the manager has done in our scenario is to personalize the communication: you’ve done a pretty bad job, you didn’t learn anything at college.

You’re inexperienced at this kind of task, so it isn’t up to the required standard, but you’ve become identified with the work and it’s also become you that’s not up to standard. What the manager has forgotten is a fundamental principle of leadership: that everyone wants to do the best they can (very rarely they don’t, but those people shouldn’t be in the job).

Work can always be improved upon, that’s the nature of progress, and as a leader your job is to evaluate what’s done. It isn’t in your gift to evaluate people, and the personal needs to be taken out of the equation. Instead of having you on the one side, opposed to me and the work together on the other, you and me need to be on the same side, evaluating the work objectively from there.

How might this look in practice? Going back to our scenario, this time the manager discusses the proposal with you privately. Cutting comments about how little you’ve learned are mainly for the benefit of the person delivering them, and are taken out altogether.

The communication then take a different form: “you’ve made some good points here, but I think the overall proposal can be improved. How about starting this section with ….” The meeting ends with the reminder that “if you’re unsure about anything, don’t hesitate to talk to me or other members of the team”.

For managers reading this who think the approach is soft and weak, remember that the hard men have unhappy teams, and since they’re angry and aggressive so much of the time they’re also miserable and probably die young.

Your choice.

Derek Roger, PhD, is a psychologist who has spent 30 years researching the causes and effects of stress. He was the founder of the Stress Research Unit at the University of York, and has authored more than 100 articles in the scientific press.

Nick Petrie is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). He is the lead researcher and cocreator of CCL s Change Equation which shows leaders how to lead change in ways that minimize stress and maximize results.

Derek and Nick are also the authors of the new book“Work without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success”, available on Amazon (and Amazon.ca for Canadian readers).

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