Bill knows that communication skills are not his strength. He also knows he wasn’t promoted to Vice President because of his communication skills. He’s worked in finance for years, knows what’s happening, and knows how to make the company money. That’s why he got promoted.
However, he’s also beginning to realize that his new role of managing a team of junior analysts is not only about his expertise in finance, it’s about leading and motivating his team. Unfortunately, he has an unhelpful habit of avoiding verbal communication with people as much as possible, and then when he does have conversations with them, he cuts them off mid-sentence, which leaves them feeling frustrated and misunderstood.
Have you ever seen someone get promoted because they’re experts at the technical aspects of what they do, but they don’t necessarily have the “soft skills” of leading, inspiring and communicating with people? That’s very common. The challenge is that a promotion invariably means more responsibility and more dealings with people, rather than more work in the person’s field of technical expertise. And that means they need to learn to be a better communicator.
Have you ever seen someone get promoted because they’re experts at the technical aspects of what they do, but they don’t necessarily have the “soft skills” of leading, inspiring and communicating with people?
Practicing your scales
Sure, some people are naturally better communicators than others, and some people certainly enjoy it more than others. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn that skill. It also doesn’t mean you have to become a communications guru to benefit from learning the skills of good communication. It’s a bit like playing the piano: some people are naturals—they love to play, spend years practicing and go on to entertain audiences of thousands with their skills. Others can become good enough to at least entertain a few friends at a party. And some others never bother to learn at all and miss out on all the fun.
Communication skills are the same. We don’t all have to learn how to entertain thousands in order for us, and those around us, to benefit, but there are small changes we can make that will have a big impact.
But I’ve always done it that way
About those deep-rooted habits
Your communication style is really a series of habits that you’ve learned over time. You might have good habits, or you might have picked up some bad habits along the way because of your natural preferences or your past experiences. Luckily for you, neuroscience now shows us that you can change those habits.
Well, technically, they can’t be “changed” or “removed”, but you can develop new and more useful habits. That’s because of what neuroscientists refer to as “brain plasticity”, meaning that your brain is constantly changing shape by making new connections between neurons.
How does that happen? The more you do something, the stronger those neuronal connections become, and your brain very quickly learns to rely on them, creating automatic behaviours or responses to what’s going on around you. As those connections strengthen, you develop deep-rooted habits.
The basal ganglia (there are two of them) sit in the inner part of your brain and act as a huge storage cupboard, storing your habits within easy access so you can conveniently use them as the need arises. So, for example, if you have a habit of always giving a warm smile and a firm handshake when you meet new people, you don’t need to consciously remind yourself “Remember to smile”—it will be something you naturally and automatically do, thanks to your basal ganglia.
This automatic response of your brain is what allows you to get through the day. You couldn’t possibly stop and think about all the things you automatically do, because that would overload another vital part of your brain, the pre-frontal cortex.
The problem is that the basal ganglia hold and automate your communication habits (or any other type of habits) without any concern for what might be a good or bad communication habit.
Unlike the basal ganglia, the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t do anything automatically. It’s vital to your survival because it’s the executive centre of your brain, enabling you to analyze, decide, understand, memorize, inhibit and recall things so you can deal with the multitude of information coming at you at any given moment. However, the pre-frontal cortex also consumes a great deal of energy, which is why the basal ganglia take over and automate anything you do more than a few times, conserving energy for the pre-frontal cortex.
The problem is that the basal ganglia hold and automate your communication habits (or any other type of habits) without any concern for what might be a good or bad communication habit. So if, like Bill, you have a habit of cutting people off in meetings, guess what, the basal ganglia will automate the process for you so that you don’t have to think consciously about it. As a result, it’s really easy for your brain to do that behaviour repeatedly, and you won’t even be aware that you’re doing it.
The bad news, and the good news
So the bad news is that you can develop bad communication habits very quickly and then act on them for years, sometimes without even noticing it.
The good news is that neuroplasticity means it is possible to create new, more effective communication habits. So our friend Bill could replace his habit of cutting people off in meetings with a new one of looking at the speaker to ensure they’ve finished before he starts to speak himself.
Change takes time
Change doesn’t happen instantly—it takes time, attention, repetition and positive feedback to go against the brain’s natural tendency to follow your ingrained, automated habits. The key is to identify the destructive communication habits and the impact they’re having on everyone involved, and then to create new, more effective habits and gradually make new, stronger connections in the brain until they become automated by the basal ganglia.
It can be hard to do that alone, because as your brain becomes more and more caught up in following what you’ve built connections around, it gets harder to observe yourself objectively. A skilled coach can help you identify your destructive behaviours and then create new, automatic and more effective behaviours (habits).
What about you? Have you noticed, and changed, an unhelpful communication habit? How did you do that, and what was easy or hard about it?
Carole Lewis coaches leaders to build stronger communication habits and communicate more effectively.