Some days it feels like we’re in constant communication, flooded by a nonstop stream of status updates and tweets and three-word questions: “What’s ur eta?”
You’d think we would be closer than ever. But more messages do not equal deeper relationships. Don’t get me wrong, my staff pushed me on the social media bandwagon a long time ago, and I’m glad for it. It’s another tool to share ideas, receive feedback and (hopefully) offer a daily dose of inspiration.
But chattering over cyberspace is not the same as connecting in person. Using fingers is not the same as using voices. Emojis do not convey true emotion.
Strong communication and leadership are all about connecting. If you can connect with others at every level—one-on-one, in groups and with an audience—your relationships are stronger, your sense of community improves, your ability to create teamwork increases, your influence increases, and your productivity skyrockets. Want to build strong partnerships? Learn to make your words count.
There’s a formula, it seems, for making meaningful connections, and I think I’ve cracked it. Here are the key elements:
1. It’s not about you.
The next time you hold a conversation or give a talk, make a mental tally of I statements. If you’re spouting off I every few lines, you have a me problem.
The ego can quickly swell in the leadership business. I’m lucky I have my wife, Margaret, and a team of trusted advisers to keep me in check. But in these days of selfies and status updates, anyone can fall into the me trap.
Focus instead on the person in front of you. Connecting begins when your companion feels valued. First time meeting? Do your homework to discover something about him or her before the handshake. Find common ground, shared values and interests. Remember what you’ve learned, and ask follow-up questions about your new acquaintance’s family, hobbies and career goals at your next encounter.
Listen to them. Really listen. During the first couple of pastoral counseling sessions I led, I could hardly wait for folks to finish recounting their troubles so I could offer my solutions. How many of you have mentally rehearsed your response before your companion could even complete his or her statement?
Real connection means looking up into faces when our tendency is to stare down at screens.
2. Words say only so much.
Have you ever met with or attended a talk by someone considered an expert in a field expecting to be dazzled but found yourself doodling on a notepad instead? The encounter could be packed with information, but if the speaker talks in a monotone voice, fails to make eye contact or hides behind a podium, you’re not likely to feel much inspiration.
Connecting takes energy, pouring your heart and soul into your encounters. Many years ago, a friend and I were applying for a part-time job. We were on equal footing, I thought, but he was hired and I wasn’t. The manager later explained that when he asked the two of us to follow him to his office, he noticed my friend march through the store with energy, purpose and confidence. I hadn’t conveyed that same enthusiasm. Tough way to learn a lesson, but what an important lesson to learn.
3. You can’t be an authority without authenticity.
Just as children can detect hypocrisy in their parents, your audience, colleagues and partners will see right through hollow words. I like to think of connecting as having three prongs: what we know, what we feel and what we do.
Think about it: If I try to communicate something I know but do not do, my communication is theoretical. If I lecture on something I feel but do not know, my communication is unfounded. If I talk about something I do but do not feel, my communication is mechanical.
Any message you convey must have a piece of you. You need to be more than a messenger. You must be the message you want to deliver.
4. Connecting takes patience.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle studies how technology has changed interpersonal relationships. During a 2012 TED Talk, she recounted this exchange:
“A 50-year-old businessman lamented to me that he feels he doesn’t have colleagues anymore at work. When he goes to work; he doesn’t stop by to talk to anybody, he doesn’t call. And he says he doesn’t want to interrupt his colleagues because, he says, ‘They’re too busy on their email.’ But then he stops himself, and he says, ‘You know, I’m not telling you the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should want to, but actually I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.’ ”
We need to break down the walls that technology has erected, and that’s going to take time and patience. Real connection means looking up into faces when our tendency is to stare down at screens. It means setting aside time for small talk instead of shooting off text talk. It means delaying your own agenda in order to understand and respond to the needs of others. I’m ready to silence my gadgets. Are you?