As a leader, the words you use and how you use them are just as powerful as the actions you take. Why? Because everything you say and do is being watched, dissected, and emulated by others. "How you communicate represents who you are to others and informs what you think about yourself," says Cynthia Kane, author of How to Communicate Like a Buddhist, released this week. In her book, Kane reveals specific patterns of communicators (complainer, apologizer, etc.). Visit Kane's website and take the short What's Your Communication Style? quiz. Once you recognize your pattern, you have the power to change it.
Most leaders I have worked with experience times when they feel like they are stuck in a rut. Their frustration manifests in communicating and acting mindlessly, being reactionary, and working from a short fuse. They find it hard to get out of their own way. Conversation begins to feel unfulfilling at the least and like punishment at the worst, becoming a cycle of ineffectiveness and inefficiencies.
Learning how to communicate effectively and powerfully is like training for a marathon; every conversation is a practice in building endurance and being mindful of what is working and what is not. The goal is to run your best race without injuring yourself or others and to enjoy the process rather than focusing exclusively on the finish line. Kane recommends six steps to transform how you communicate with yourself and others:
1. Start with the four fundamentals. "We are born learning how to talk, not how to communicate," says Kane. Let that sink in. Practice communicating with these four important intentions:
- Be respectful
- Be kind
- Be gentle
- Be helpful
2. Learn to listen to the words you use. "Pay attention to the words that come out of your mouth and your reactions," says Kane. She recommends three steps:
- Take a note from the Emotional Intelligence practice and try really hard to observe the words you use when you talk to yourself. Don't evaluate; just listen. Maybe jot the words down in a journal.
- Look for common themes and patterns. Are any of the words potentially diminishing? For example, many women use the phrase "I'm sorry" when they have done nothing that warrants an apology.
- Start to replace what Kane terms "diminishing language" with "additive language." For example, instead of saying "always" or "never," say "today." Or instead of saying, "I'm sorry," Kane recommends using an additive phase such as "excuse me."
3. Learn to listen to the words others speak. "Communicating is not about shoving your opinion down a person's throat, and it's not about trying to fix anyone. It's about being in the present moment," says Kane. Learn to listen to the people you talk with; in addition, take notice of how they allow their emotions to manifest. Those of us who are not practiced in this form of communication may find it hard to keep our minds quiet enough to be truly engaged throughout the conversation. Kane recommends three actions to take before going into a meeting to help you become well-versed in this step:
- Create a list of the items that need to be discussed in the meeting.
- Set an intention for the meeting and a commitment to yourself to truly be there for the person or people you are meeting, even if you don't like them.
- Practice active engagement. Remember that the person you are meeting with is a human being with feelings, wants, and dislikes. Try to find common ground, and practice empathy for the other's perspectives and contexts.
4. Learn how to speak consciously, concisely, and clearly. "We usually say more than we need to," says Kane. The best communicators choose their words wisely. Only essential and specific words make the cut. Being vague will only confuse the listener. For example, let's say you need a report from a colleague by 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday. Instead of saying, "Can you have something in my email Wednesday morning?" say, "Can you email the full report to me no later than 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday?" Kane suggests four elements to help shape your speech to what is necessary:
- Be honest
- Do not gossip
- Do not exaggerate
- Use helpful, peaceful language
5. Regard silence as a part of speech. "Many of us have been taught to use silence as a power play. Silence can also be a way to promote intimacy and compassion," says Kane. Kane sees silence in a positive light: It can be your best tool during difficult conversations. The more you allow silence, the more you make it an equal conversation. You talk and then pause, leaving time and space for the other person to speak. Kane suggests using silence as a way to consider the following:
- Are you being kind?
- Is the language you are using helpful?
- Are you taking the conversation in the right direction?
- Are you considering your responses before speaking?
6. Practice daily meditation. "This is what glues everything together. Meditating changes the structure of the brain," says Kane. Meditation is called a practice for a reason. It takes a while to train your brain for meditation. It took Kane about a week of daily practices. Others, like me, take a bit longer. Kane recommends a pragmatic approach to building meditation into your daily routine:
- Your day is super crowded already. Ease into meditation by starting with 10 minutes daily.
- Notice your incoming thoughts but don't engage in them. Let the thoughts come in, see reactionary pieces, and let the thoughts go.
- Be open to letting go of your expectations of meditating. Having thoughts come and go makes us human. Meditating gives us freedom to let go.
- Practice a mantra to bring your mind back to meditation and carve a zone free of judgment or criticism.
- If you struggle with trying meditation on your own, don't worry. There's an app, well, there are a lot of apps actually, for that. Experiment and see what is right for you.