Listening to what we say about ourselves

I really enjoyed contributing last week to the BSME January conference for Leaders and Aspiring Leaders in British curriculum schools in the Middle East – what a keen and engaged bunch of professionals! And it was super to see so many of them in the (virtual) room! I came away feeling really quite uplifted at the thought that this kind of commitment and openness to development would be driving learning and understanding for the next generation of young adults.

I was presenting on how to lead a team effectively in practice, building on Deniece Wheeler’s comprehensive presentation about the theory of team building, and I had 3 main messages – first, know yourself and your team; secondly, make sure you appreciate the roles you each have to play in your team, and thirdly, keep growing and practising together. Of these 3 points, it is the first on which I have been musing recently, and I want to explore an aspect of this self-knowledge a little more here.

One of the observations that strikes me repeatedly in my coaching is how much people communicate about themselves without really thinking about it, through the language they use. I hear sometimes people switch from ‘will’ to ‘would’, or from the active voice to the passive voice, both of which might suggest a sense of lack of agency. I hear fluctuations in intonation, and I hear people swiftly skipping over something which, when I bring them back to it, can often turn out to be really significant. Not all communication is verbal, of course – far from it! – but language enables us to identify and transmit nuanced understandings to other human beings, and as such, arguably it behoves us to think carefully about what we are doing when we use it.

One of the most common gaps I have identified in team communication over the past few years, working with hundreds of leaders, is the gap caused by leaders not articulating clearly enough who they are, and how they lead – a gap exacerbated by team members failing to do the same. It is a gap often filled by – sometimes very unhelpful or misleading – assumptions or projections. To put it in other words, if we are not careful, we can end up muddling through in our relationships with our teams, congratulating ourselves that we really understand everyone, whereas in fact we may have some glaring blind spots which, quite simply, we do not recognise are leading us astray.

How can we improve our acuity of insight and become more acutely self-aware, as well as aware of who those around us really are? Well, the obvious answer is to work with a coach – a trained professional who will not be afraid to notice, challenge and highlight to you what you are saying, as a precursor to helping you own and/or reframe it, depending on what you identify that you need to do with it. At the very least, however, start by becoming more self-aware. Think about phrases that you use all the time, and analyse them – what are you really communicating as you use them? How would they land with those around you? Notice your language more; pause and think before you speak, and reflect afterwards. And spend time delving down into yourself: who are you as a leader? What drives you? What brings you satisfaction?

Life is a journey of self-awareness, in service – I believe, at least – of the greater good. And it is too short to waste any moment of it! So … get reflecting …

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