Monthly Archives: April 2016

Listening and the imagination gap

in one earI recently heard a TED talk by Intel engineer Tony Salvador. He described the “imagination gap” in listening, which he defined as the difference between what we can imagine and what we hear.

We all bring biases and preconceptions to conversations. When the other person says something that doesn’t fit, we experience cognitive dissonance. Our response can be to hear what fits with our beliefs and ignore what doesn’t.

For example, Salvador told about working on a team to promote education in Vietnam. In his mind, education was about getting a job. For his partners, he realized that it was about being part of a global community that uses education as a marker of success. They were having different conversations without understanding each other’s viewpoints.

A few years ago I experienced the same thing. Our team was designing an online training course for employees. One supervisor pointed out that many of his employees work in remote locations and have no access to computers, either at work or at home. We were talking about completion dates and tracking while he was talking about access and alternative delivery options. Our team really didn’t hear his concern that our plan might not work for everyone.

Salvador proposed that we can reduce cognitive dissonance in a different way – by increasing our ability to imagine the other person’s viewpoint. To close the imagination gap, we need to aim for some very difficult goals:

  • Start every conversation fresh without preconceived biases
  • Listen to ideas that we may not like and hold them long enough to understand the other person’s viewpoint
  • Listen for things that aren’t said and that we don’t know to listen for

He challenged his IT audience with some key questions that work in higher ed as well:  Who are we going to listen to? How are we going to listen to them? And most important, will we have the collective humility to be vulnerable enough to struggle with differences and challenges so that we can build our future together?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Read the room

“How would you treat your mother?”

With that line she had the attention of the entire room.

A decade ago I was in a meeting with 120 top leaders from the healthcare organization I worked at. Our CEO demonstrated what it takes to be a great communicator. She didn’t tell us what was important to her or to our regulators. She zeroed in on what was important to us. What type of care would we want to design for our own family members?

Mike Myatt, leadership advisor and contributor to Forbes, writes in the 10 Communication Secrets of Great Leaders: 

“Great communicators are skilled at reading a person/group by sensing the moods, dynamics, attitudes, values and concerns of those being communicated with. The message is not about the messenger; it has nothing to do with messenger; it is however 100% about meeting the needs and the expectations of those you’re communicating with.”

Myatt encourages leaders to persistently follow 10 principles when communicating to develop the skills needed to be a great communicator.

  1. Speak not with a forked tongue.
  2. Get personal.
  3. Get specific.
  4. Focus on the leave-behinds, not the take-aways.
  5. Have an open mind.
  6. Shut-up and listen.
  7. Replace ego with empathy.
  8. Read between the lines.
  9. When you speak, know what you are talking about.
  10. Speak to groups, not individuals.

(He offers one more – bonus – principle that I will save for those of you who click to his article!)

Who is in the room when you speak, and what do they care about?

Todd Thorsgaard

Stay curious

childs curiosity“Life is best experienced with a sense of awe, wonder and discovery. Go about life with a child’s curiosity.” – Tom Gregory

I’ve been musing lately about what makes people exceptional communicators. And I’ve noticed one commonality. They are interested in others and their ideas. While they may be very interesting people themselves, they don’t focus on only telling their story. They draw out other people’s stories. And they focus on learning and discovery in the process.

I have a dear colleague who I consider a master communicator. I’ve always appreciated her ability to connect with people, put them at ease with a warm smile, and ask them questions about themselves. Her natural curiosity fires this talent and she has built strong relationships at work and in her personal life as a result.

In my leadership journey, I’ve tried to focus on being a good communicator by asking questions and encouraging dialogue with others. Still, I have to remind myself to stay curious at times. If I’m lulled into thinking I’m the only expert on a particular topic, or if I’m feeling rushed by deadlines, my curiosity can be dulled.  It’s in those times that I can miss an opportunity to approach a situation, a problem, or a person with awe and wonder.

What do you do to stay curious?

Anita Rios


Leading and not knowing

drucker1“The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” — Peter Drucker

It seems like much of the literature about leadership communication is focused on getting our messages across to others. And that’s important. But as Drucker pointed out, that’s only half of the equation. A highly regarded leadership consultant and scholar, he found that it’s equally important to create an environment where others can get their messages across to us.

One key way to do that is to ask good questions and listen carefully to the answers.  Gary Cohen, author of Just Ask Leadership, says that for a question to be meaningful it must come from a place of not knowing. This means:

  • Our questions must come from genuine curiosity – people will sense if they’re expected to come up with the “right” answer.
  • We have to be open to new perspectives and ideas. We can’t know it all, and even if we did it wouldn’t be helpful in engaging others.
  • We have to acknowledge that our stories and beliefs may not show the whole picture. And as Cohen points out, even if it was true in the past, things can change. We might tell ourselves stories about how a particular action wouldn’t work in our organization, or how a particular person should not be trusted. They can get in the way of productive listening.

I sometimes struggle with not knowing in a leadership setting. It can be difficult to let go of my ideas and listen with an open mind to perspectives that are very different from mine. In those situations, I’ve found that framing good questions can help me focus on the other person.

Dee Anne Bonebright




Speak from your heart

Wow, the entire room just broke out in applause!

I just witnessPrinted that in a Board of Trustees meeting after a speech by one of our newly appointed presidents. These meetings are usually formal but her message  touched us deeply. She spoke from her heart! We knew she was the right person to be the new president as she shared her story as a first generation college student herself, who now lives and breathes the urban metro university life.

Getting comfortable speaking from your heart can be a challenge, but learning how to do it will help you communicate in ways that truly share your message and literally compel people to listen.

Anett Grant, president of Executive Speaking, Inc., shares five steps for speaking from the heart in her 4 Minute Read in FastCompany.

  1. Tell a powerful opening story from your own life. Open yourself up to bring your audience closer to you.
  2. Make sure your story directly connects to your overall message. This ensures that it is your message that is retained and influences people, not just the story.
  3. Connect your message to your audience’s own experiences. Help your audience clearly recognize how your message is relevant to them.
  4. Share a brief concluding story. Bring your message home by telling a personal story that relates to your overall message but adds a different aspect.
  5. Wrap up! Conclude with a brief summation of your message to ensure that people clearly understand your key points.

People may not always applaud, but when you speak from your heart your message gets through.

Todd Thorsgaard

Listen! Really listen!

listen“She isn’t interested in my opinion.” “He doesn’t care what I have to say.” “She already has her mind made up!” “He just doesn’t listen!”

Have you ever heard any of these statements about a leader you know? Perhaps, you’ve heard them said about yourself. It may come as no surprise, but poor listening skills can derail the most talented and charismatic leader’s career.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), “…leaders are usually shocked to learn that others see them as impatient, judgmental, arrogant or unaware.” Assessments of thousands of leaders in CCL’s database indicate that many leaders fall short on abilities that directly relate to their listening skills, including:

  • Accepting criticism and making necessary changes in their behavior
  • Trying to understand what other people think before making judgments
  • Encouraging direct reports to share
  • Imagining someone else’s point of view

If not corrected, poor listening skills contribute to poor relationships and translate into low employee morale and poor productivity. So what can you do to make sure that you are not one of the many leaders who alienates their employees due to poor listening skills?

Here are a few tips from Sara Stibitz, writer for the Harvard Business Review:


  • Take an honest look at both your good and bad habits
  • Clear out all distractions that might draw your attention away from the person in front of you
  • Ask clarifying questions and repeat back what you heard


  • Assume you know all of the answers — allow for the possibility that others have valuable information to share
  • Overlook nonverbal cues — they often reveal what a person is really thinking
  • React emotionally to what is being said — acknowledge the information even if you don’t agree

What do you do to make sure you are really listening to those you lead?

Anita Rios

Crafting two-way communication

CTF2 NormandaleHigher ed is really about communication. As leaders, we communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, from students and colleagues to vendors and community members. We need to listen carefully and craft messages that can help build two-way communication.

The Teaching Professor blog recently had a post about crafting better explanations in the classroom. I thought the tips worked well for leadership communication as well.

  1. Use language the hearer can understand. Your audience may not have the specialized knowledge and background you have. Test out your message to be sure it makes sense to the people receiving it.
  2. Pace communication appropriately. You’ve been thinking about this issue for a while. Your audience may be hearing it for the first time. Develop your communication plan to allow time for people to hear the message, consider it, and hear it again in a different way.
  3. Prepare more than one way to explain. People learn in different ways. What seems crystal clear to you may not be as clear to the listeners. Listen carefully to questions and reactions and be prepared to address different styles.
  4. Use examples that are meaningful to the listener. A powerful story that helps draw listeners in can be one of the most effective ways to help make your message stick. Share your stories and listen carefully to theirs.

The blog pointed out that classroom explanations can always be improved. The same holds true for leadership communication. How have you seen leaders build effective two-way communication?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Too many words!

too many words quoteA colleague of mine shares a funny but helpful story on ineffective feedback. She was a co-owner of a small business and the co-owners decided they needed to terminate one of their employees after a long and unsuccessful progressive discipline attempt. Her business partner was a nice guy but had trouble delivering tough messages. Since he had hired the employee he wanted to deliver the news. He met with the terminated employee for an hour and later reported to my colleague that it was a tough meeting but it went well and he had asked the fired employee to pack up his office at the end of the day and wished him luck.

Much to her surprise the next day the “fired” employee was at his desk working away. Her co-owner had been so unclear, so indirect and so muddled that the employee had no clue that he had been terminated! Not effective feedback at all.

As this article in the New York Times reminds us, the purpose of feedback is to help people do better, not feel better. Both positive and negative feedback need to be straightforward. Being direct and clear is key to effective feedback and will improve leadership communication. The What and Why model I learned a number of years ago can help leaders overcome the tendency to over-complicate feedback and keep it focused. Effective feedback only needs to include – and must include:

  • What specifically the person did, said, or didn’t do. The behavior or action that you want to reinforce or needs to be changed. Stated directly, specifically and clearly. No extra explanations or editorializing – “just the facts!”
  • Why it matters. A short but direct statement that describes the impact or consequences of the action or behavior. Either positive or negative. Again, no editorializing or explanations at this time.

Nothing more and nothing less.

Todd Thorsgaard

Explaining your point

One key communication challenge for leaders is the ability to clearly explain the purpose of the message. Are you looking for feedback? Seeking alternate opinions? Informing people about a decision? Or are you just thinking out loud?

fountainWe’ve all heard (or personally experienced) stories about mis-matches of intent. For example, I know of a local organization that was visited by an enterprise leader from New York. While complimenting them on their facilities, the leader mentioned that the front lobby would be a great place for a fountain. A few weeks later he received plans and a price estimate for installing a fountain. As you probably guessed, the leader was just making an observation. He had no desire to spend money or staff time on implementing it!

Leaders need to communicate differently, because their words carry more weight. What strategies do you use to explain your point?

Dee Anne



Communicate to accelerate!

Accelerate-455x687“Great communication – no matter the topic – always connects with people’s feelings and with what they find meaningful.”

John Kotter from his latest book, Accelerate: XLR8

Can you remember projects that you “got to” work on compared to projects that you “had to” work on. The feeling of energy and the opportunity to do work that made a difference. I recently listened to one of our state university presidents talk about the amazing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to contribute to transforming higher education. All of us felt the emotion in his message and it resonated with meaning for each of us.

In his latest book, XLR8, John Kotter shares ideas to help leaders communicate in a way that creates this type of “get-to” mindset. Communication that “captures people’s attention in a way that almost compels” them to engage in their work with messages that describe both the urgency and the opportunity to make a difference in a meaningful way.

A starting point for leaders is to focus and align people’s energy and enthusiasm using what Kotter calls “Big Opportunity” statements. These statements must include both emotion and reason. At Minnesota State Colleges and Universities we have an opportunity in front of us that is described in the following statement:

Charting the Future is a strategic effort to help change how we work and encourage collaboration among MnSCU institutions to better prepare our students for success and achieving a more prosperous Minnesota. We are imagining a better world for our students, our colleges and universities, and our communities across the state.

Creating “Big Opportunity” statements that are realistic, emotionally compelling and memorable can help you connect with both your people’s heads and hearts.  “Big opportunity” statements are:

  • Short:  Less than one page so they are easy to share and can reach more people.
  • Rational: They need to make sense in the current reality so they are not dismissed immediately.
  • Emotionally Compelling: Speak to the hearts of all relevant audiences.
  • Positive: Focus on the opportunity and what “burning desire” people have to make a difference.
  • Authentic: It feels real, is believed in by you and demonstrates your level of excitement.
  • Clear: Provide clarity and focus.
  • Aligned: Supports or is consistent with existing mission or vision statements.

Leaders who are able to communicate with their heart and heads can unlock the potential and passion of the people they lead.

Todd Thorsgaard