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Check for Understanding

The focus of this guide has been on the active process of communicating—speaking, writing, delivering, and planning. However, while it is true that communications is an active process, it is also true that much of communications involves the leader's pausing to check for understanding. Leadership communications is a two-way process, and leaders must listen to what their people are saying. It is not enough to deliver the message; it is also important to determine how people are receiving it. Furthermore, communications involves retaining the message, with the implication that something is done with the information received.

Two groups that have had some success in demonstrating how leaders can be more attentive are the military and the medical community. The U.S. Army has a tradition of the brief-back, asking a subordinate to put in his or her own words what the commander has just said. This is a simple method that has enormous implications. Asking the soldier to put the orders into his or her own words accomplishes two things: One, it confirms the soldier's understanding of the original order, and two, it affirms what the soldier will do as a result of the order, specifically how he or she will execute the order. The brief-back can work in situations large and small. For example, a master sergeant who is responsible for maintenance on an Apache helicopter can give the orders of the day regarding what the crew is to do in the way of maintaining and repairing the chopper. To ensure that everyone understands, the master sergeant may ask one or two of the crew members to repeat what was said. Likewise, during a live-fire training exercise, a junior officer may be asked by the colonel to interpret the orders and say what the platoon will do. In both instances, the communications are critical; mistakes in helicopter maintenance or a live-fire exercise can be fatal. Both situations require absolute clarity, and it is up to the leaders, those giving the orders, to ensure that everyone understands her or his role.

Physicians, likewise, check their patient's understanding when they do a patient history or begin a diagnosis. They ask questions of the patient to make certain they understand what the patient is experiencing, e.g., pain when, where, and for how long? Likewise, after they have made a diagnosis and prescribed either a therapy or a pharmaceutical or both, doctors explain the implications and lay out the course of action. Once upon a time doctors skimped on the explanation of the therapy because their options may have been limited and the nurse would always fill in the details. Today many physicians adopt a consultative approach, not only involving the patient in the decision making about available therapies, but also answering the patient's questions. They also ensure that they or their nurses can follow up on the details when questions arise.

Both of these situations are classic examples of checking for understanding. Leaders need to adopt similar approaches. Here are some suggestions.

  • Implement the "brief-back." Much of communications involves asking people whether they understood what was said. Rather than settling for a noncommittal head nod, ask people to tell you what you have told them and what they will do as a result. This is a technique that Colin Powell made use of throughout his army career. For example, if you give a briefing on reducing absenteeism, ask your hearers for a synopsis of your message and what they will do in response to it. As with coaching, insist on specifics and timelines. Gain agreement and follow up on the specifics. By asking for the interpretation of the message, you ensure understanding. And if you don't hear what you want to hear, repeat your message and clarify it until the person understands. Ensuring understanding is a leadership responsibility.

  • Designate an information source. Leaders need to deliver the message and keep reiterating it. They also should be available for follow-up questions. However, while communications is a paramount responsibility, leaders do not need to be available 24/7. They can, and should, designate a go-to source for follow-up information. Not only does this free up the leader's time, but it also distributes ownership of the communications process. Other people become involved and add their knowledge and experience. This makes for a much more robust communications process, one that is not dependent upon a single individual, but rather utilizes a cadre of well-informed individuals.

  • Delegate responsibility. Ownership of the communications process needs to involve a delegation of responsibility to an individual or a team. The leader needs to give that individual or team the authority to solve problems that may arise from communications. No longer does the individual or team need to come back to the leader for permission on every decision; people can make decisions for themselves. When responsibility is intertwined with communications, the entire organization benefits by being both better informed and better able to deal with its own issues. As an army man, General Marshall always insisted on his officers taking responsibility. He insisted that his generals make decisions and live by them.

  • Invent communication loops. Too much of organizational communications is restricted to functional channels: The boss sends out a memo or transmits an email. Often it is confined to a single medium, such as a video or a brochure. These are fine and serve a purpose, but leaders need to be flexible. Sometimes it is appropriate to go outside the channels, to talk to people at different levels, in different functions, or even outside of the company. At the same time, most communications is one-on-one. Talk to people. Be willing to create communications that people want. For example, if you are looking for suggestions, create an email box. If you are looking for creativity, stage a pizza party. Invite people to come; the price of admission is a suggestion or a new idea. On the other hand, if there is a breakdown in communications, look for ways to get individuals or teams together. Maybe the best way is a meeting, or maybe it's a coffee outside of the office. Be willing to experiment. There is no single right way to facilitate good communications; the only limit is the power of the leader's imagination. And if that is lacking, ask people to find ways to encourage communication among themselves. This is often the best way to get people to work together.

  • Stay in the loop. Communications is not a "cut and run" action step. It's an ongoing, circular process that is renewed and regenerated by the creation, cycling, and recycling of key leadership messages. Leaders need to stay engaged in the process, something that Winston Churchill did in his War Cabinet and Rudy Giuliani did with his city administrators. This means asking people what is going on and following up on the progress of a message. Do people understand what needs to be done? Do they understand their responsibilities? Have I communicated clearly and frequently? Communications by a leader is a discipline. The more engaged the leader becomes in the communications process, the greater the opportunity to increase levels of trust and achieve results.

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