February 2012Leadership

The Science of Better Communication

science of better communication

Successful executives know that their ability to communicate is critical to their success. Being able to address and relate to others in order to engage what moves them is at the heart of leadership. And yet a misperception that it's difficult or nearly impossible to improve this skill persists, even as evidence indicates workplace miscommunication conservatively costs companies billions of dollars a year.

That wasn't the case for Chris Alexander. The senior marketing manager was in line for a promotion, and he knew that strengthening his relationship skills would help him get to the next level. "Most people rely on their strengths, and continue to use the same approaches even when they don't work well. I was looking for new insights and tools to improve my leadership and communication abilities."

Alexander's desire for improvement led him to Wharton a few months ago to participate in Building Relationships That Work. "The program helps you to reframe mental models. It's not about fine-tuning some of the skills you already have, but about changing the way you think and act to get better results. [Co-learning directors Chuck Dwyer and Janet Greco] had us change the way we think about obstacles, things that get in the way of us getting what we want. When you look at them instead as opportunities, your approach changes, and you can get much further."

But it wasn't simply about learning to think differently. Alexander continues, "The program is science-based, and teaches specific, applicable tactics and tools that you can use immediately. It was really beneficial to be able to practice with the other participants. It's about being able to use it, not just to know it. Weeks after the program ended, I'm continuing to use the tools and get better results."

Relationship Science

"Relationships can improve dramatically when you increase your repertoire of what and how to offer value to others — as defined by those others," notes Janet Greco. "As Cicero said over 2000 years ago, ‘If you wish to persuade me, you must think my thoughts, feel my feelings, and speak my language.' Learning how to understand others, and then to communicate in a way that resonates with them, is key if you want to be understood and avoid conflict and misunderstandings."

If learning how to think, feel, and speak like others seems enigmatic, Greco makes it almost formulaic. She and co-director Chuck Dwyer use the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which is based on understanding whole-brain functioning, to help participants understand their own preferences for thinking, perceiving, and communicating and to help them perceive and cater to the preferences of others. "The HBDI can be learned and used effectively in a matter of hours," Greco explains. "This knowledge is a sound basis for relationship building. When you know your own biases, you can avoid their restrictions. You also become better at inferring the styles of others, which, in turn, helps you communicate more effectively."

Alexander compares the approach taught in Building Relationships That Work to the one-size-fits-all method he has learned elsewhere. "Having a limited tool for something as complex as communicating with individuals only works some of the time. That means within six months, you're back to business as usual. It's not effective enough. Janet and Chuck showed us that you have to be flexible — people are different, and you need different approaches to be able to relate to them well. Not only was [the program] thought provoking, but it has made me a better leader. This was the kind of change I was looking for — one that will have an impact for the rest of my career."