I’ve observed 4 patterns that consistently undermine effective communication. Here’s how to fix them.
In a recent column, I explored the skills that can help leaders become clear, focused communicators. But all the work leaders put into becoming clear speakers can be undone if they unintentionally diminish their own message.
Throughout my years of leadership coaching, I’ve noticed a particular pattern among many leaders: certain communication habits that undercut, undersell, and devalue what the leader is saying — and, in turn, the leader overall.
Here are some of these self-diminishing communication habits, and how to fix them.
1. Sticking to the script
One of my clients, Jen, often presents ideas to senior leaders in her company. She is thorough in her presentations, spending lots of time and effort on meticulous preparation. But she is easily thrown off-balance when asked questions. She panics and rambles, often not answering the question and instead forcing the conversation back to her prepared bullet points. This is a communication habit I often see in some of the otherwise highest-performing, accomplished leaders. By refusing to go off-script she, ironically, contradicts her deep well of knowledge and preparation. I encouraged Jen to practice going off-script, to trust in her competency, and believe that she’ll be able to handle questions she didn’t anticipate. In the event she doesn’t have the necessary information to answer a question, she can portray much more confidence and authority by replying with, “I don’t have an answer to that right now, but I would love to do some research and get back to you,” rather than obscuring the truth with an unrelated, scripted response.
2. Filler words and fear of silence
Many people are uncomfortable with silence and fill it instead with filler words — the “umms” and uhhhs” that fill the space but can make people sound unsure and nervous. If you need a moment to collect your thoughts and mentally prepare a response, take it. This moment to prepare can be especially useful when explaining complex concepts or translating information to connect to an audience’s reference points. We may think silence portrays a lack of knowledge, but when used strategically, it can actually communicate confidence and thoughtfulness. Moments of silence in speech can also add variety to the tempo of a speech and give the listener a moment to rest and process. In his book, Executive Presence: Step Into Your Power, Convey Confidence, and Lead With Conviction, author Joel A. Garfinkle calls this “the power of the pause,” and one of the signifiers of a clear, communicative leader.
3. Qualifying words and phrases
Along with filler words, I observe many leaders using filler phrases such as “in my opinion” and “I was thinking,” along with qualifier words such as “sometimes,” “just,” “kind of,” and “sort of.” These words and phrases can water down a message and weaken your speech. Be aware of when they show up in your communication and replace them with more direct, specific language that doesn’t devalue your message. Instead of “in my opinion,” try “the research shows” or “one of my recommendations is.” Look for “just,” “kind of,” and “sort of” in your speech and delete them. And watch out for subtle-and-not-so-subtle apologies: “I’m sorry, but I think” or “I’m not the expert, but….” These can discount your credibility and signal to your listener that you don’t believe what you are saying.
I ran a storytelling exercise with Jen during which she shared a family story. At one point, she smiled while describing a particularly trying, difficult experience. As her audience, I was confused. The content of her words didn’t match her non-verbal communication — and she was completely unaware she was doing it. What Jen displayed was incongruence, a misalignment of the content of a message and the vocal and visual communication it’s delivered with. Congruence, however, is when those three elements align, according to UCLA psychology researcher Albert Mehrabian. He found in his research that messages land most effectively when the speaker’s vocal and nonverbal communication support the intention the speaker has behind their words. To make sure you’re achieving congruence, ask a trusted friend or colleague for feedback. Do your vocal tone and delivery, facial expressions, and body language support the content of your message?
In his book, Garfinkle says that clear communicators set an expectation with their listeners, that “when [they] speak, [they’re] going to deliver a message with a clear purpose.” Be ready to go off-script; leverage the power of the pause; be aware of filler words, qualifiers, and apologies; and strive for congruence and you will succeed as a clear, confident communicator.