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5 priceless leadership communication lessons learned the hard way

There's a difference between hearing and truly listening. That's just one of the tough lessons of communication as a leader.

6 min read


5 priceless leadership communication lessons learned the hard way


An early career mentor of mine — a senior leader — regularly reminded me, “Art, you’ll go as far as you can communicate.”

I took him seriously, and I worked hard to emulate his energetic, confident stage style, and thoughtful one-on-one demeanor. And while “presence” is important, I learned over time that succeeding as a communicator was much more about substance than smile and style.

Here are five lessons I learned — sometimes the hard way — during two decades of leading and guiding others. Use the ideas in great professional success!

1. Listening is a leader’s job one

There’s a difference between hearing and truly listening. It’s easy to think you’re listening to someone as they share an update or describe a problem while you are multi-tasking. You hear their words, but you’re not listening. If you were, you would turn to the person and throw your whole mind and body into the process of striving to understand what they are trying to say.

Here’s why:

  • Listening is a powerful means for showing respect and respect is a critical building block for trust. Trust is the foundation for high-performance.
  • You can’t be at your best as a coach and talent developer unless you tune-in to the strengths and gaps of individuals by observing and listening to them. You learn a great deal by what someone has to say, including how they think and how they decide. Armed with the clues gleaned from careful listening, you can support their development.

Michael P. Nichols, the author of “The Lost Art of Listening,” offers one of my favorite quotes on this topic: “Listening is the art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between us.”

He’s right. While the physical distance between us is small, the gap for understanding each other is vast, and only closed by tuning in and paying attention.

Consultant and author Tom Peters in his book “The Excellence Dividend” adds some verb phrasing to the call-to-listen with, “If you’re not exhausted after a conversation, you’re not really listening.” It’s time to sweat some more!

2. You have to care to connect and lead

Study leadership in dangerous situations, and you’ll find ample references to the importance teams place on expecting their leaders to care about their safety and success. While most of our workplaces aren’t battlefields or four-alarm fires, the need for caring is strong nonetheless.

The perception that you care about the safety and success of each team member opens the door to connecting through your communications. It’s this connection that enables collaboration, innovation, and creative problem-solving.

3. How you frame situations drives behavior

Words grow in power as you shift from contributor to leader. And while this sounds positive, it can be problematic as any leader who has found one of their off-hand comments suddenly taking on life as an alleged edict.

After a few, “Art said” situations that turned into supposed direction shifts or command activities, I learned to manage my comments, including how I framed situations.

Research in psychology and human behavior shows that individuals respond differently to the same situation depending upon how it’s framed. The response to, “We’ve got a 90% chance of success with this approach,” versus, “We’ve got a 10% possibility of failing with this approach” can be quite different. The same goes for the boss approaching a group suggesting, “This is a problem, and we need ideas fast” versus, “Here’s a situation, what are some ideas we might apply?”

Too many in the workplace use frames that push team members or colleagues into defend mode. “I want …” or “You need to …” immediately trigger defensive responses, sometimes leading to disagreements over positions and a loss of focus on interests.

Effective leaders learn to uncover mutual interests by leveraging the power and psychology of framing. They ask questions and position problems as opportunities to explore options and make lives and conditions better.

It’s a great practice to carefully prepare the frame for any issue involving change, a problem or a request. The success or failure of most discussions is determined in the opening sentence.

4. A leader’s questions can teach or instill fear — be careful

The mentor described earlier in the article oozed presence filled with smile and style in his communications until a problem on his team turned him into an inquisitor that destroyed individuals on-the-spot. I knew immediately this approach was wrong and vowed to handle those situations differently when it was my turn to lead.

It’s the nuance in your questions that determines how people respond. Questions can be perceived as attempts to uncover someone’s mistakes or flawed thinking. Or, you can work hard as a leader at ensuring they are teaching tools.

I prefer to use active questions that encourage individuals to think deeply and critically about situations. If a problem arises, and a team member’s approach falls short of creating the right results, you can ask: “What do you think you did wrong here?”

With the right tone, it’s not horrible, yet it still carries that tinge of an indictment, and it is a bit too passive to create a good learning experience. My preference is: “How will you approach this situation differently in the future to create better results?”

Instead of focusing the individual on what they did wrong — something that will push them into “defend” mode and bias their thinking — the active question opens the door to discovery.

Always pause to think through your questions. Be deliberate about your word choice, and use an active structure that frames the situation and nudges the individual into discovery mode. You’ll be amazed at how people respond.

5. Leaders put challenging conversations at the top of the priority list

I learned this valuable lesson by doing the opposite and pushing out, delaying, or avoiding some tough discussions. By delaying them, I allowed toxicity to spread on my team, and I damaged my credibility as a leader.

Thankfully, another great mentor helped me understand the need to tackle the tough topics with individuals, and to put these discussions at the front-end of my days and weeks. She was right, and this simple shift in thinking and behavior paid ample dividends.

The bottom line for now:

Be deliberate about your communications in every encounter. Words are powerful. They are the ingredients of success.

Persuasion and influence expert Phil M. Jones offers: “Throughout my studies of people, human relationships, and business interactions, I have been amazed by how some people achieve dramatically different results than others with what seems to be the exact same ingredients.”

With a bit of deliberate focus and ample practice, you can create a great recipe for success with your communications.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker, and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. You can visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles at

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