“The art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Hume)
Every notable achievement the world has ever known was the result of great leadership. First born of an idea, then put into action by a leader with the ability to recreate his vision in the minds of others and inspire action. Words are what give every vision, every inspiration life. But the inspiration to act comes only from those who are fluent in using a language purposefully and persuasively. This ability is “communication fluency” and it has been – and will forever be – the one true language of leadership.
When we speak of history’s most revered leaders and personalities, we measure their importance first and foremost by their accomplishments. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela each inspired their countries to confront painful histories, cultural norms and oppressive laws that perpetuated racism and inequality. Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler at a time when most western leaders willingly turned a blind eye to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and readily embraced a policy of appeasement. Churchill demonstrated great courage and leadership that inspired the resolve of his people and helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II. In 1928, an obscure and diminutive Catholic nun went to Calcutta to work as a teacher in a small school. She later moved to the slums to start the Missionaries of Charity, an order dedicated to serving the poorest and neediest members of society. She became famous throughout the world for her boundless generosity and selfless service to the neediest among us. She remains a timeless source of inspiration for all of humanity.
For every person revered by history, the first thing we often remember is what they did – not what they said. We see this tendency reflected in the time-honored English maxim, “actions speak louder than words.” Yet, there is a basic irony in this conventional wisdom. Every one of these historical figures were first and foremost – great communicators. Their words are what inspired action. Absent that, we never would have known who these famous leaders were. Their monumental visions of change would have lived and died as merely unrealized thoughts.
Indeed, the world’s greatest triumphs all began as nothing more than ideas – raw and unrefined at their inception. One’s ability to explain that great idea to others and translate it into action can only be done with powerful communication. Great leaders all have insight. They can see beyond what is – and envision what is possible. Winston Churchill was a great leader because he was a great orator. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech rallied a nation to confront its painful history of racial discrimination. Mother Teresa’s simple, powerful devotionals and daily meditations continue to inspire future generations to charity and service.
Like their predecessors from history, today’s great leaders can only truly lead with the skills of “communication fluency”. This capability is what allows them to build bridges between cultures, resolve conflicts and inspire progress. Leaders who communicate with fluency can also create successful business ventures that generate wealth, improve living standards in underserved populations and lift many out of poverty. Learning communication fluency has two basic requirements: first, we must recognize the problems and shortcomings with our conventional wisdom and methods. Second, we need to embrace a new approach to language use and communication.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George Bernard Shaw)
In our world today, global communication is on life-support, a fact that most do not acknowledge or fully understand. Why are our communication skills in such rapid decline and on the verge of an unceremonious demise? The problem is rooted in our conventional wisdom which has no regard for the true essence of communication fluency. This deficit is compounded by technology. While our means of communication have become more sophisticated – and purportedly more convenient – technology makes us less effective in our interactions with others. The first crucial step on the road to communication fluency, therefore, requires an understanding and acceptance of the root cause of our predicament. Beyond any doubt, the culprit hides in our conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom is the notion that certain ideas or beliefs are so generally accepted, they must never be challenged. While often anchored in truth, conventional wisdom is routinely wrong as evidenced by the fact that science once believed the world was flat. The same body of scientific thought – or conventional wisdom – later contended that Earth was the center of the Universe. It was a good thing for all of us that some had the courage and conviction to challenge those commonly held beliefs.
When it comes to understanding global communication skills, today’s conventional wisdom rivals the belief that the world was flat. We have a distorted and incomplete view of the essence and efficacy of effective and persuasive communication. As a starting point, we think of communication as a skill that is tangential or peripheral to actual knowledge. However, knowledge and communication each are inseparable parts of the other. One cannot function without the other because we cannot effectively communicate what we do not know. Knowledge, therefore, is at the heart of communication fluency.
One of the biggest fallacies of conventional wisdom is that those who speak a common language understand each other. The ability of two or more people to use a common vocabulary and the same grammar rules does not necessarily lead to a mutual understanding. Ordering a meal or asking for directions in a foreign country is one thing. Simple, basic and factual. It is relatively easy to communicate and be understood in these situations. The margin for error is small and any mistake usually can be overcome with ease. The more complex the situation, however, the more likely it is that a misunderstanding will occur. These complexities are routinely encountered by business professionals. For example, negotiating a business deal, making a presentation or counseling a client are events that require us to express our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, perceptions or preferences. Here, we must use language to persuade within a specific cultural paradigm. It is in these challenging circumstances that we most often confront the problems and obstacles that separate us from communication fluency.
The ability to speak a common language is not synonymous with the ability to communicate effectively. Yet, we instinctively – and mistakenly assume we share the same cultural values of our target audience when we use a common language. We tend to mirror image our own values on others, assuming our general knowledge, motivations and methods are equivalent to those with whom we seek to communicate. When communications breakdown we are at a loss to understand why. The failure wasn’t caused by our foreign accent, mispronunciations or even our grammatical errors – even though they are the first things we tend to blame. The truth is that our communication failed for lack of knowledge. We lacked essential knowledge of different business practices, cultures, etiquettes, habits and attitudes. These are the core elements of a cultural paradigm within which all communications must occur – regardless of language. Imagine how different our communication would be if instead we consciously reflected a sensitivity and understanding of these diverse factors when we used our second language. For example, instead of searching for words to describe our position in a negotiation, we first considered the cultural and industry particularities of our negotiating partner. Then, we formulated a strategic response that conveyed this understanding. In any language, that is the approach of persuasion. Yet without demonstrating this understanding to those we seek to influence, we cannot persuade. This is because we cannot communicate what we do not know. Communication fluency, therefore, requires knowledge.
Our “problem” with communication fluency is further exacerbated by technology. Indeed, we have become victims of our own success. Thanks to technological advancements, we now live in a highly connected global environment. The internet, cell phones and social media allow us access to one another in real time across continents and time zones. Our linked world has created new and lucrative commercial opportunities for international businesses. Despite these great achievements, our collective ability to communicate has not improved. Rather, it has become much worse.
The world is now addicted to social media and other virtual methods of communication. These tools allow us to connect with others quickly and efficiently – often at the expense of accuracy and comprehension. This addiction has destroyed our attention spans and patience. We now expect to be informed and to understand things at the speed of light – well beyond what is otherwise reasonable. Likewise, our patience for listening to others continues to grow shorter with every new app or method of virtual communication.
The Perils of Multi-Tasking
The practice of “multi-tasking” has become a common – and even admired practice amongst busy professionals. Current conventional wisdom is that multi-taskers are more efficient because they can double their efficiency by doing several tasks at once. In truth, however, this habit is much more a vice than virtue as it often leads to many unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds. Recent studies have found that when a person “multi-tasks” or seeks to do two or more things at the same time, he becomes less efficient every time he switches his attention between tasks. In a study published by Stanford University in 2018, researchers found an interesting – and perhaps ominous paradox between heavy and occasional multi-taskers. Although more practiced at the undertaking, heavy multi-taskers were found to be much worse at switching between tasks than light multi-taskers. Heavy multi-taskers also were more easily distracted by irrelevant external cues. Further, their memory and recall were poor, and they had difficulty filtering out environmental distractions. These are consequences that make it difficult, if not impossible to learn a second language – let alone anything of substance.
Today’s business professionals are heavy multi-taskers – often not by choice but by necessity. The demands of clients, managerial duties and other essential job responsibilities require that they remain available and connected during work and after hours. As a result, it is common to see working professionals routinely check emails or texts during important meetings, conference calls or networking events. The issue isn’t that professionals’ multi-task. Rather, the problem is that professionals have become addicted to a practice that they abuse – instead of using it as a tool of necessity. Every time we try to read an email or text while doing something else – we divide our attention and set ourselves up for failure. Our multi-tasking becomes nothing more than a distraction. When we are distracted, we become passive, not active listeners. As passive listeners, we will miss crucial information which limits our understanding and knowledge of a given situation. Passive listeners do not lead. Passive listeners fail because they do not fully understand the dynamics of a given situation. Passive listeners never communicate with fluency. Don’t be a passive listener.
Email communication is perhaps one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding, miscommunication and risk in our contemporary business world. This is because most of today’s business professionals over-rely on email as the preferred and primary means of business communication. By this choice, they put themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to communication fluency. They deprive themselves of the opportunity to hear the tone of someone’s voice or inflection that they would hear on the telephone or in person. While necessary in our global business world, email is a very limited form of communication. It does not allow us to observe facial expressions, tone of voice, demeanor, reactions and all other essential dimensions of communication. Because it is a limited form of communication, email should supplement, not supplant strategic and important business communications. The misuse and overreliance on email is a universal problem as it causes misunderstandings between two native speakers of the same language. When over-relied upon by professionals using a second language, the problem of email miscommunication is significantly compounded.
These commonly accepted workplace practices hinder our ability to communicate with fluency. Compromised or ineffective communications often result in fractured business relationships and/or lost commercial opportunities. The negative communication consequences of social media are also universal as they occur with similar frequency between native speakers of the same mother tongue. It is not hard to imagine the significant additional challenges that ensue when professionals of different companies attempt to communicate in a language that is the second language of one or both speakers. Yet that very scenario is now a reality in the international commercial world. We must challenge our conventional wisdom by accepting that knowledge is at the center of, and inseparable from effective communication. We must also accept the limits of email and social media as communication methods and modify our behavior accordingly. Once we have taken these two steps, we have embraced the problem. Only then, are we ready to navigate the road leading to communication fluency.
In Part 2 of “The Essential Partnership of Knowledge & Communication,” the authors provide specific solutions and new approaches to helping international business leaders become great communicators.
 Media multi-tasking, mind and brain; Melinda R. Uncapher, Anthony D. Wagner, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct 2018, 115 (40) 9899-9896; DOI: 10.1073/pnas. 1611612115.