All Articles Leadership Communication Understanding human communication patterns makes you a better leader

Understanding human communication patterns makes you a better leader

Learn to listen, not just bide time until you get to speak again.

4 min read



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Do you have a colleague that irritates you with his “ahs,” “ums” or protracted silences?

Leaders are taught that strong orators remove superfluous words and awkward silences from their presentations, so it makes sense that you might take a dim view of these speech patterns. But even though Sam from accounting might drive you to distraction with his verbal tics, these words (or lack thereof) actually serve a purpose in conversation. Here’s how to crack the code on this uniquely human communication pattern so you can better connect with your colleagues.

Verbal fillers as traffic signals

Linguistics professor N.J. Enfield at the University of Sydney in Australia has studied the role that words such as “ah” and “um” play in conversation. It turns out that these words act as “traffic signals” in human communication, signaling to others in the conversation when to chime in and when to hold up. (Although animals communicate with one another, they don’t consider how their communication methods affect other animals, which makes this “traffic directing” uniquely human.)

In this Atlantic article, Enfield describes these words as cues that tell the listener, “I’m still forming my thought … give me another moment.”  The leadership takeaway? When talking with someone, learn to view these verbal fillers as a request for a few more seconds of airtime for the speaker, rather than losing patience or seeing the person as less credible.

Is your conversation a competition?

Leaders may also perceive the space created by verbal fillers as an opportunity to form one’s response. This frames conversation as a competition, where listening carefully is the means for finding flaws in logic or formulating a rebuttal, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.  

“That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener,” write Zenger and Folkman in this Harvard Business Review article. “Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”  

To boost your listening skills, think of your conversations with people in a cooperative, “give and take” light, allowing for your team members to “gain energy and height [within the flow of conversation], just like someone jumping on a trampoline,” write Zenger and Folkman.

Using silence to build connection

The phrase “silence is golden” rings true for leaders trying to encourage meaningful conversation. But, as linguist Enfield points out, leaders face an uphill battle because in one-to-one conversation, “a full second is about the limit of our tolerance for silence.” So do use silence to build a connection with others, but do so with the proper intent.

Leadership coach and author Peter Bregman writes, “If you treat this silence thing as a game, or as a way to manipulate the views of others, it will backfire. Inevitably you will be discovered, and your betrayal will be felt more deeply. If people are lured into connection, only to feel manipulated, they may never trust you again.”

Leadership tip: Discern the reason for the silence. If it’s because the speaker needs more time to formulate a thought, but you’re tempted to jump in to “help” them with their words, silently count to 10 in your head before replying.

Far from being annoying habits to be squashed, some verbal habits actually serve a purpose. Astute leaders will pay attention to the communication cues they’re being offered and respond accordingly. Doing so will garner you a reputation for communication excellence.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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