Mark Sanborn: How Leaders Communicate

By Mark Sanborn

"Communication is both a science and an art."
- Mark Sanborn

Communication is the Tool, Not the Objective

A sales manager approached me after I finished speaking about leadership at his association's


meeting. His mood seemed somewhere between perplexed and provoked.

"You talked about how leaders communicate persuasively," he complained. "Even with the word 'persuasive' in front of it, I have a problem with ‘communication.' I can't think of a more amorphous word than 'communication.' I told my team no more communication; their job is understanding! If the sale isn't made, there was no understanding."

He was right. Communicating isn't the objective of a good leader. Understanding is the objective. Communication is simply the most important tool for accomplishing that.

It reminds me of the night our family went out to dinner. As we waited for our table, my wife Darla was reading the specials board out loud. "Look, boys, ‘All You Can Eat Fish.'" At that point Jack—who was five at the time—responded with exasperation. "Oh no!" he said, "all you can eat is fish?! I want a hamburger!."

Over the years I've seen research studies that repeatedly report the problems caused by poor communication. In one, communication was cited as the cause of poor employee/follower performance 80% of the time (if you define communication broadly enough, you could say it is responsible for 100% of the problems we face).

Communicating is easy.

Communicating effectively—both understanding and being understood—is much more difficult. That is what leaders do.

Leaders Sell

People buy for three reasons. They trust who they're buying from, they have reasons that make sense for buying, and they feel good about their decision. That's why leaders know how to sell because everything is sold.

Believing that your ideas are so good they don't have to be sold is the height of arrogance. It is ridiculous to think that if what you have to offer—ideas, products or services—is good enough, people will naturally see the light and buy them.

Still, I've had clients tell me that they feel selling is beneath them. Why does the word "selling" so often carry negative connotations?

Because people confuse selling with manipulation. The salesperson, they believe, is out to meet his or her goal at their expense and that salespeople want as much of their money as they can get in exchange for as little of their product as they can provide. (Certainly not all salespeople are scrupulous or ethical, but no profession is without a few bad apples. Just don't judge the entire orchard by a few rotten fruits.)

To commit to the principle of selling like a leader, you need a good definition of selling.

Selling is helping people make a decision that is good for them.

If you have a good idea, product or service that can benefit the buyer, it is your responsibility to sell it. Telling about it isn't enough.

What happens if you have a superior idea or product poorly presented? The potential buyer will go somewhere else to find the idea or product they need—and it may not be as good as yours!

Go from "telling" to "selling"

The ancient Greeks studied the principles of persuasion and explained it as three components. They are ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos, the root of the word ethics, represents a person's character and credibility. People feel comfortable buying from someone who is credible. They trust that person and establish a rapport, a feeling of being comfortable. The basis of all rapport is perceived similarity.

The one thing a leader can always have in common with another person is his or her best interest.

When you communicate in such a way as to demonstrate that you want what is best for the other person, he or she will be drawn to you.

Leaders have people power because they recognize and appreciate the significance of others. When you communicate from the other person's perspective, you quickly develop rapport.

Once you've won the trust of the listener you've opened his or her mind to consider your message. You must find a way to impact him or her with what you want them to understand, and that requires making an emotional connection.

Pathos arouses the passions of the listener or audience. It includes the power of MOTIVE: "the meaning of their involvement vividly explained."

If you've ever taken a sales course, you've heard this general truism: people buy on the basis of emotion and then justify their decision with logic.

I think it is more accurate to say that all the facts and figures won't sell someone if the person doesn't feel good about buying. Emotional impact is key in selling ideas and gaining commitment.

Yet good decision making is seldom if ever made on emotion alone. There is another component of persuasive communication.

Most of us can recall getting engaged by the emotional only to regret the decision we made under those circumstances. We need more than emotion to buy whatever another person is selling, whether it is a product, a service or an idea. What justifies and supports the emotion of any decision is logic.

Logos is logic, the marshalling of reason. It is usually called into play right after a person thinks, "That sounds good, but…" At that point, they're looking for reasons to support their feelings.

Some people are more persuaded by emotion, while others weigh logic more heavily.

Since leaders aren't clairvoyant, they design their communication to include both—after, of course, they create rapport.

Leaders Influence

Impressing someone changes what he or she thinks about you. Influencing them changes what they do because of you. Leaders care little about the impressions they make. Instead, they strive to influence others to take positive action.

Here's how to influence every time you communicate:

1.) Start with a question

"What do I want the person I'm communicating with to think, feel and do when I'm done?"

Be clear on what you want. If there was ever a time to "begin with the end in mind," it is when you communicate.

Leaders communicate intentionally. That means that they know what they want every conversation, email, phone call or speech to accomplish. Then they design what and how they communicate to achieve it.

2.) Focus on quality, not quantity

Ever heard it said—or say it yourself—that "things would be better if we just communicated more?" Often communicating more just creates more problems.

Good communication is about quality, not quantity.

3.) Speak the truth with compassion

Don't tell people what they want to hear. Tell them what they need to hear. Just make sure you tell them in such a way that they'll listen.

Too often, out of a fear of conflict or disagreement, the partial truth is told or the message deflected away from what really needs to be said. Telling the truth in a way that minimizes conflict creates a number of benefits. It saves time, energizes the relationship, builds trust and gets to the point.

Leaders aren't always right, but they are clear about what they believe. In the process of expressing your unique point of view, remember that others often have a different perspective. One of the biggest obstacles to effective communication is discounting another's point of view.

There is your view and their view, and often the best point of view lies somewhere in-between.

4.) Focus on the listener, not the communicator

There are three modes of communicating. They are being:

1. Self-centered
2. Message-centered
3. Listener-centered

To be listener-centered requires that you put personal needs aside and become so familiar with the message you are trying to communicate that you can focus on and respond empathically to the listener.

Either consciously or unconsciously, as most people listen they ask themselves, "What does this mean to me?"

Good communication answers that question by making it easy for the listener to understand the message's impact.

5.) De-complicate the message

Several years ago I spoke at a one-day leadership symposium for a telecommunications company. Using PowerPoint slides, upper leadership shared 138 leadership imperatives with those assembled. I don't know about you, but I have a hard time remembering seven-digit phone numbers.

What chance of success do you think those leaders had when they returned to their teams and said, "Good news! There are only 138 things we've got to do every day to succeed."?

Leaders are boil-down artists. They de-complicate the world and make it easy to understand. De-complicating means giving context to what you're asking another person to do. It takes her or his personal view of the world and fits it into your view of the world for the shared and the bigger view of the world at large.

The only thing people have less of today than disposable income or time is attention. With excessive demands on limited attention, effective communicators harness the power of the sound bite. They make concepts easy to understand and repeat.

For more great information and resources from Mark Sanborn, visit his website