Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What is an effective communicator?

Recently the Kings Fund tweeted questions to followers enquiring about essential qualities future NHS leaders need to have.  If you want to see the responses, check out #emergingleaders and @TheKingsFund on Twitter.

I responded with what may seem like a pretty obvious quality:

Yes of course NHS leaders will have to be effective communicators I hear you say.  "Excellent communication skills" seems to be a given on practically every job description nowadays.  And, as a clinical researcher / speech and language therapist I would say that communication skills are essential.  It's my job, after all.

The purpose of this blog, however, is to challenge the reader to reflect on how they judge someone to be a good communicator.  Think for a moment of someone you know (either personally or in the media) who is an 'effective communicator'.  We might think of people that we admire for their communication of science or history, or a political or social influencer.  It might be an entertainer or comedian.  Or it might be a leader at work who's talks inspire employees to go that extra mile.   Chances are, whatever field you think of, when asked to think of an 'effective communicator' you will think of a great orator, wordsmith, someone who delivers a slick presentation and keeps you engaged.

The reason that I added 'a 2 -way process' to the photo above was because communication can never only be a one directional process.  Listening skills are as essential to be an effective communicator as are speaking skills.  Again, this may seem like an obvious statement, we know this and we all value 'a good listener', but professionally we do not always judge communication skills, particularly in our leaders, by the ability to listen.

I'm sure I am not alone in witnessing poor communication skills in some NHS leaders.  Sure, they can deliver a slick presentation, they have no problem with spoken language, they have an answer to all the questions that are thrown at them, but staff or clients just don't think the leader is on the same page as they are.  The problem is, they are just not listening.

I've recently witnessed some excellent examples of communication skills when I attended the Cheltenham Science Festival on a bursary from my University.  The purpose for me was to learn about successful public engagement and to see how science is communicated to the public.  The most impressive examples of communication were from Professor Robert Winston and Professor Vincent Walsh.  What made these two stand out was not their ability to speak about their work.  Though they were highly skilled in this respect, so were many of the other speakers I watched.  The difference with these two speakers was that they appeared genuinely interested in the questions and opinions of the audience.  This communicated an open mindedness to other ways of thinking or to new ideas.

Listening skills are a fundamental part of the communication process.  We would be unable to develop even basic language without listening skills.  In "Origins of Human Communication" Michael Tomasello argues that the roots of language lie in humans' biological adaptations' for advanced social life.  Our communication skills, he suggests, are the result of a motivation for 'cooperative communication'.  This results in humans establishing shared experiences, helping and informing others reciprocally in order to establish and work towards shared goals.  It is on this platform that language develops and continued successful communication takes place.

In order to establish shared goals, a communicator needs to understand the experiences and motivations of whoever he or she wishes to communicate with.  In an organisation this involves listening to staff, customers and other stakeholders and having some understanding of their experiences and needs. As Owen Hargie and his colleagues highlight in their book "Social Skills in Interpersonal Communication", however, effective listening skills achieve much more than this.  They point out that effective listening serves 5 main purposes, enabling the listener to:

1.  focus on the message communicated
2.  gain an accurate understanding of the other communicator's message
3.  convey interest to the other communicator
4.  encourage full, open and honest expression
5.  develop an 'other centred' approach

It can be seen, therefore that even in the listening process, positive messages are being communicated out from the listener; "I'm interested", "I want to know your honest opinion", "I care".

Perhaps because we are all able to hold a conversation most days, and therefore all 'listen' as part of every day interactions, we do not consider listening as a skill.  It is a skill, however, and may be just as finely honed as outward communication skills such as public speaking. 

'Active listening' is described by Hargie and his colleagues as a process where the listener pays particular focussed attention to the speaker and indicates with nonverbal communication (or body language) that he or she is doing so.  A favourite quote of mine by Stephen Covey has done the rounds on Twitter:

In essence, listening takes effort.  It is not a pause in your own speak where you can plan your next comment, it is a real opportunity to establish shared understanding.

Another comment I want to make about being a good listener is that the skill of listening does not need to be confined to one to one, or even group conversations.  A leader of an organisation can have listening as a value underpinning her/his actions.  The last chief executive of our NHS trust made a point of spending time at the 'coal face' with staff to find out what life was like for them, and what mattered to them.  She also made it clear that any member of staff in the trust could email her if they needed to.  These are examples of a good listener in action.

An effective communicator needs to be not only a skilled presenter, but also an effective listener.  Whilst we all know this, perhaps we should seek evidence of being a good listener from future NHS leaders, and not simply judge communication skills on the outward message.

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