What we say and how we say it makes a difference. The messages we send, intended and not, contribute to how people see and feel about us. Consider the slogans the candidates are using and what they say and what they infer.
- “Make America Great Again” - used by Donald Trump’s campaign, was also used by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election - unsaid, America is not great...it was, but it has fallen from its greatness
- “A Future To Believe In” - used by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, - unsaid, You can’t believe in the future others are painting in their campaigns, or in the future created by those in power. My design for the future is the one to believe in.
- “Hillary For America” - used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, most recently, “Fighting for us” and “I’m With Her” unsaid, two of the three remind us of her gender. Also, Hillary is focused on America, all of us.
- “Courageous Conservatives” and “Reigniting the Promise of America” - used by Ted Cruz’s campaign, also “TRUSTED,” “A Time for Truth,” and “Defeat the Washington Cartel” unsaid, “I am trustworthy, an outsider. Others are untrustworthy”. The flame of America’s promise has been out, Cruz will reignite it.
- “Kasich For America” - used by John Kasich’s campaign. unsaid, the suggestion that others are not for the whole country but for themselves or the few and that Kasich is for all of us.
These are well-planned messages, designed to be catchy, short, and create a memorable image. But even with the thought behind them, the positive message carries more, other intended or not, stealth messages.
But in the life of an educator, phrases, responses, public statements, written and spoken fill the day; they are unrehearsed and usually not written by public relations firms. Learning how to carefully craft responses and make public comments is a skill and delivering them involves a bit of artful genius. Consideration for the response of the recipient before speaking is essential. Presidential candidates’ audiences are worldwide. A school or district leader’s audience is far more intimate. The effect of a badly worded message can be felt personally, have impact on our families and become the trigger for an unintended groundswell of negativity and opposition. Ironically, then, on a local level, words may matter even more. The candidates have an advantage in that their every word is recorded and they can step back and watch and hear themselves over and over, if they have the time or inclination to do so. With review and feedback sessions, they can sharpen their message, change their delivery style, and craft messages for specific groups among their audiences as they move forward. Educators rarely are engaged in the elaborate messaging development process used by politicians.
So the challenge for school leaders in this regard is two fold. One, a leader has to listen to her or himself carefully and at the same time, be attentive to the responses they receive. The other is to be courageous enough to invite others to observe and offer feedback that can inform how we are perceived. These two actions require time for reflection and willingness to trust. Invite input addressing both facets of messaging: content and delivery.
Reflection on what we are going to say will not have the advantage of professionals reviewing and giving us feedback as the candidates do. We might not have pundits and swarms of media personnel pouring over each word for implications and criticism but someone, somewhere is always listening and our words will come back to us. Taking the time to be purposeful in messaging and to ask others for feedback before broadcasting a message can certainly improve effectiveness. Each misstep is remembered by the audience and can cause rifts down the line that are difficult, if not impossible, to repair. That damage is disruptive. It becomes a distraction from the agenda of leadership. It is best avoided by thoughtful and planning.
How one speaks can be as important as what one says. Julian Treasure, an international expert in sound and communication and a five time TED talk presenter, outlines 7 negative ways we communicate that prevent others from listening. They are gossiping, judging, negative, complaining, making excuses, lying and being dogmatic. He also identifies 4 foundational attributes, HAIL, that help others listen:
- honesty (being true and clear in what you say)
- authenticity (standing in your own truth),
- integrity (doing what you say), and
- love (wishing people well).
He also discusses the importance of the sound of one’s voice, the pacing of words, and the welcome offered by silences.
In the course of the day of an educational leader who has time to think of all of these? And, yet, we can look around us and see the consequences for those who didn’t send their messages well. This must be the “work before the work” that saves critical time later and engenders support when we really need it. Leaders must communicate well to serve well. Leaders with passion and purpose want others to listen and they want to be a galvanizing force creating forward momentum for schools and communities. And so, even though it may not rise to compete with all the urgent issues on the agenda today, to ignore its importance will not serve us well.
Photo by gajus courtesy of 123rf
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.