Leadership involves words – careful, inspiring, words of clarity. What many forget, is that silence is also critical to effective leadership.
In recent months, I’ve been coaching several healthcare leaders, all with varying objectives, and varying skills. One in particular springs to mind when I think of the power of silence.
This leader is enthusiastic, focussed and provides clear direction. What she has come to identify as a challenge to work on is silence.
When we first met, she had taken over a senior management role from a colleague. Our first two sessions involved her talking a lot about her predecessor and how things were in a bit of a mess. When I asked about a way forward, she repeatedly came back to issues with the previous manager’s style. It felt like a deflection; something to hold me at bay so my question could remain unanswered. Or was she just feeling a bit out of her depth and uncertain? This aligned with other times I would ask a question and there would be a long monologue with lots of what I call ‘corporate speak’ – she said a lot, yet revealed little.
We talked about talking; the benefits of pausing before jumping in (I sometimes struggle with this myself!); reflecting on a question and then answering clearly. Not for my sake – for her own leadership style. Team members, colleagues and her own manager could potentially stop listening if she rambled (her word) without much clarity. This could reduce her impact as a leader. Underneath the mountain of words there was gold – she’d wondered why her ideas and guidance were not being heard; now she had pause for thought.
Don’t make people dig through your words looking for gold. Life is busy, people give up easily.
We also talked about discussing other leaders; the appropriate times, places and ways. We identified when it could just sound like blame, condescension or ‘non-kindness’. We explored the impact on her own thought patterns and achievements if she was stuck talking about her predecessor’s perceived faults and mistakes; the potential to lose her own focus. The possibility of being caught in a vortex of someone else’s past.
Learn from other’s mistakes. Just be humble (and quiet) about it.
I’m delighted to say that this leader was committed to enhancing her leadership style and communication skills. Simply by becoming conscious of her words, she found herself identifying some habits she wanted to change. Her report back was that she did catch herself when she went to blame the past for her team’s challenges; she learnt to slow down and take a deep breath when her thoughts went there. Rather than saying the first thing she thought of, she asked herself – “What’s a better way to show leadership?” This generally led to a much more productive comment.
At the same time, this dedicated leader also refined her answers to questions. Again by slowing down. When someone asked her a question, she got in the habit of thinking – “What’s my core message here?” She found that this helped her give really clear answers. She also dropped the reliance on over-used words and talked in plain language.
Nobody’s perfect. Changing the way we communicate as leaders takes awareness, time and dedication to action. It requires us to try an approach and see if it works; to figure out a way to hold ourselves to account and change habits. The very first step is awareness. Not everyone can access a coach to reflect back their communications. Yet listen to your words, watch how people respond; understand the type of leader you want to be and take the first step.
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