A fine friend and skilled speaker landed in a dreadful situation. He had agreed to address a convention of toastmasters—persons who lead local public-speaking clubs where members overcome common speaking fears and practice effective speaking techniques.

When he arrived a few minutes early for the event, he met with his friend who had arranged the speech. He discovered that the audience was not toastmasters, but postmasters—persons who run local post offices.

He frantically tried to organize a speech in his head while his friend introduced him. Then he took the stage, mic in hand, alone with the whole audience of postmasters peering directly at him. What could he possibly do?

Click here to receive a free 35-page PDF excerpt of my latest book, Communicate Like a True Leader.

He relinquished his façade. He explained that he had planned a speech for the wrong audience. That he didn’t even know what postmasters actually do. That he was thoroughly unprepared.

Then he spoke from the heart about what he knew intimately. He told stories about his and his close friends’ loneliness. About their fears. About the stifling lack of meaning in their work.

My friend’s message was simple but profound: we are all first and foremost human beings, not workers. We share a common humanity. We experience fear as well as hope.

Then he thanked the postmasters for the opportunity to share his thoughts and feelings. He received a long, standing ovation. The wounded storyteller had connected with the wounded postmasters.

When we put on masks we deprive others and ourselves of the shared benefits of genuine community.

But opening up is not easy. We are fearful of what others will think about us. It’s easier to posture and pretend.

Of course we can be too candid. Like some airline passengers, leaders can spend far too much time talking about themselves. Learning appropriate self-disclosure is essential. We need to reveal enough personally to connect with others in our shared humanity, but not so much that our conversations and presentations become self-performed soap operas.

For most of us, however, the problem is excessive fear of rejection. Once we begin taking off our masks, we expose our inner selves to others’ inspection. The risks seem daunting.

Admitting that our masks make us frauds is essential for all leaders who seek to communicate authentically. Only then can we begin to construct genuine selves that are worthy of what others might think about us in our best moments. The result is not another façade. It’s a genuine person who can laugh at being miss-prepared for a speech and yet connect with the audience as fellow humans.

Once I was in the audience when my friend who had spoken to the postmasters was speaking to another group. After his presentation he came up to me unexpectedly with a signed copy of his latest book. I was deeply honored. I quickly looked at the signature page of the book while he was smiling at me and noticed that he had misspelled my name. What should I do?

I couldn’t ask him for a new copy, properly endorsed. I could affirm our shared humanity. “Bill,” I said, “thanks so much. The fact that you misspelled my name is about the highest honor I could receive from you. Neither of us needs to save face, because of your open heart. I love you.” We laughed. And hugged. And laughed some more.

Reflection
Why are you fearful of being open with others? What are you covering up?

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

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I receive humbling notes from former mentees thanking me for something I said to them. Sometimes I don’t recall saying exactly such things. They sound like something I might have said, but not precisely what I think I would have shared.

When we listen we often emphasize particular points in our own minds. We tend to note and elaborate on those thoughts that seem to best address our own situations. In this sense, human communication is somewhat idiosyncratic. Thirty people who attend the same meeting will pick up on points that are most important to each of them.

While this can lead to misunderstanding, it can also enhance our communication. Others can use our words to expand and improve upon what we have to say.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Recognizing this dynamic, I assume that others might be ready to receive more than what I strictly intend to say. In fact, what I have to say might stimulate in listeners significantly more understanding than what I think I have to offer.

In short, human communication is dialogue, not merely monologue. Even if the listener doesn’t say anything, I can assume that he is probably in dialogue with himself—thinking, reflecting, questioning and the like. He might even be getting more out of his own inner dialogue than I thought I was capable of sharing.

Robert Greenleaf, the founder of Servant Leadership, refers to the role of “spirit” in relationships. I believe that when we aim humbly to serve others through communication, we discover an expansive, creative reality that can enhance our communication. In this sense, to lead from within us is also to be led from outside of or beyond us. Where this communication-enhancing creativity comes from is a mystery. So “spirit” seems to be an appropriate term.

With such creativity comes a great irony: sometimes the more stringently we try to control our communication, the less communication we will experience. This is counterintuitive. We need to reserve space for the unexpected—both in our speaking and our listening.

Of course such unpredictable communication isn’t an excuse for sloppiness. As I suggested earlier, we are called to use the gift of communication to serve others excellently as well as compassionately. Yet if we work too hard at it we might miss out on the unexpected benefits, even beyond our apparent abilities. We have to give up some control to be open to greater creative possibilities. Controlling people are not the most effective—let alone the most joyful—communicators. They tend to squelch the creative spirit.

Reflection
Can you recall a time when communication transcended your expectations—when people received more from your intended message than what you imagined was possible? If not, are you truly open to communication beyond your own means of control?

Click here to receive a free 35-page PDF excerpt of my latest book, Communicate Like a True Leader.

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As a new professor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was sitting in my campus office when the administrative assistant asked if I could take a call from a radio station in Zeeland.

Seconds later a program producer with an interesting accent invited me to a radio interview the following day. I accepted.

The next day the host came on the line to introduce me to his audience. I couldn’t fully understand him. His accent plus the static reduced intelligibility. He frustratingly asked me, “Do you know anything about . . . Zealand?”

“Of course,” I responded, “it’s just down the road. I’ve spoken in Zeeland a couple of times.” “Huh?” he wondered aloud. “Aren’t you in Michigan, in the USA?” “Right,” I confirmed. “Grand Rapids. About 20 miles from Zeeland.”

I had assumed that the program was broadcast on a nearby station in Zeeland, Michigan, when in fact it was a national broadcast on Radio New Zealand. What I interpreted as a Dutch accent from my own geographic area was a Kiwi dialect.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Miscommunication knows few bounds. The basic problem is that we assume that there will be shared understanding even when we bring different assumptions and life experiences to our interactions.

The most essential part of any definition of communication is shared understanding. Human communication is first of all the art of establishing shared understanding. To understand someone is to “stand under” that unique person, to humble one’s self to his or her understanding of reality.

Communication is not merely the “effect” that we have on each other. How you interpret me—how you are “affected” by my words—is not necessarily communication. If you don’t understand what I am actually intending to say, we failed to communicate. Such lack of shared understanding is miscommunication, not communication.

This is critically important because we humans are not called merely to affect one another. We are creatures of meaning, trust, and, at our best, shared understanding. Which is to say we are designed for community.

We don’t have to agree with one another in order to understand one another. Mature persons can agree to disagree even when they deeply understand each other.

Shared understanding can begin when we honestly accept one another’s invitations to engagement. We are on the way when we accept such invitations gratefully, listen openly, and converse respectfully. We thereby foster shared understanding—understanding of each other’s intended meanings.

When I began the radio interview I didn’t know who my audience really was. New Zealand was beyond my frame of reference. As I wrapped up the interview, I was sweating profusely. I had no idea how well the audience understood me. I could barely remember the conversation. I had been swimming anxiously in a sea of miscommunication. Ironically, the interview was about communication.

Reflection
Do you see communication as shared understanding or mere impact? Do you routinely aim for shared understanding in your everyday interactions?

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I got my first regular job at 16 years of age, assisting a 45-ish man who ran a family-owned pharmacy in Chicago. Jerry was the pharmacist and manager. He was also a friend to locals who came in to buy newspapers, talk politics, and share jokes.

In addition to cleaning and restocking shelves, I washed pharmaceutical pill bottles and removed the manufacturers’ labels so Jerry could reuse them to fill prescriptions. I spent Saturday mornings soaking bottles and scraping off labels.

After months of Saturdays I asked Jerry why he didn’t just buy new bottles. He suggested that my work served him, the business, customers, and society. Why load up landfills with more glass (there was no recycling)? He added that all human work impacts others.

The importance of what we did, Jerry explained, included the greater meaning of the work, not merely the skill involved, however seemingly menial. He said that much of his pharmacy work was pretty routine. In the bigger picture, though, he was actually keeping people healthy, and I was helping him help them.

I believe that we humans are called to be stewards or, as Robert K. Greenleaf put it, trustees. We are all called to be caretakers of the world we’ve inherited. We don’t ultimately “own” the world even though we do acquire parts of it to use and enjoy. To put it differently, we’re all entrepreneurs who serve others by creating additional worth out of the value that was here long before we were even born.

Moreover, we conduct our caretaking in and through communication. Jerry’s store depended on in-person, written, and telephone communication to serve customers, staff, and the broader community.

Caretaking has two aspects. The first is caring for others. This caring is excellence in action. We become skilled at whatever specifically we’re called to do, including communication. We listen well, speak carefully, write clearly, and persuade effectively as needed to serve others.

The second aspect of caretaking is caring about others—engaging our heart in our work, with compassion. A true professional needs to care about those she is serving.

Jerry was not just called to be a pharmacist. He cared for and about his customers and employees.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Every leader as caretaker-trustee must be a skilled and caring communicator. These two aspects of caretaking—excellence and compassion—are twin anchors for servant leadership. We learn through communication what they are and how to practice them.

At the time I was too new to the world of work to recognize how fortunate I was to learn caretaking from a true leader like Jerry. Twenty years after he closed the Chicago store and moved to California, I visited him there to thank him personally for caring for and about me. Thanks to Jerry, I became wiser, freer, healthier, and a more autonomous communicator.

Reflection
Do you have a deep sense of your calling as a caretaker? Do you need more skill (excellence) or heart (compassion)—or both?

Click here to receive a free 35-page PDF excerpt of my latest book, Communicate Like a True Leader.

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Gratitude: The Most Important Leadership Trait

by Quentin Schultze

Some years ago I met with former Herman Miller CEO Max DePree to discuss communication. I humbly wanted to confer about his splendid definition of leadership in The Art of Leadership: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must […]

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4 Essential Ways to Communicate in the Age of Social Media

by Quentin Schultze

In this audio I address candidly the four essential ways that we can reinvigorate our communication in the age of social media: (1) cultivate gratitude in our hearts in order to avoid cynical, critical, impatient discourse, (2) listen empathically and sympathetically with triage for the most important relationships, (3) play together as the context for […]

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Why Is So Much Public Communication Nasty?

by Quentin Schultze

Public discourse is particularly unpleasant today. What’s going on? Rather than blame a political party, candidate, system, or ideology, I would like to suggest a new way of looking at our troubling state of affairs. I taught communication at the college level for four decades. In the last fifteen years I noticed a shift among students and across society. I repeatedly observed a […]

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How to Be a Real Listener

by Quentin Schultze

Listening isn’t easy. Listening is messy. Complicated. Counterintuitive. We can’t become good listeners unless we first acknowledge how difficult it is for each of us personally. Novelist Ernest Hemingway puts it squarely: “Most people never listen.” Do you? Listening is not just hearing. It’s not even just about sound. Listening is attending to reality—to the […]

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7 Signs of Poor Listening

by Quentin Schultze

Seven Signs of Poor Listening 1. Judging others too quickly and harshly 2. Jumping to premature conclusions 3. Responding thoughtlessly 4. Basing opinions of others on first impressions 5. Failing to set aside one’s biases and prejudices 6. Seeing reality solely from one’s own, limited perspective 7. Focusing on self-centered agendas

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6 Ways to Be a Great Communicator

by Quentin Schultze

1. Encourage—build up others 2. Advocate—speak up for others 3. Listen—care about others’ thoughts and feelings 4. Tell Stories—give others joy and delight 5. Forgive—make things right when you’re wrong 6. Challenge—gently ask appropriate questions to help others understand reality

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Are You Really a Grateful Communicator?

by Quentin Schultze

Our hearts can hold three basic attitudes toward others: displeasure, indifference, and gratitude.  These shape how we communicate with one another, and especially how others perceive us. Displeased communicators tire us with complaints and criticisms. Their hearts say to others, “You don’t live up to my standards” and “I’m better than you are.” We generally […]

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What to Say To Someone Who Loses Loved One to Suicide

by Quentin Schultze

This personal story is both heart wrenching and full of hope. When words fail, actions can speak compassionately. Thanks to the author of this article for writing it and publishing it.

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6 Tips for Great Interpersonal Communication in the Age of Social Media

by Quentin Schultze

This 35-minute presentation is from a speech I gave on my new, co-authored book, An Essential Guide to Interpersonal Communication: Building Great Relationships with Faith, Skill, and Virtue in the Age of Social Media. For more information about the book, please visit the Amazon page. Thanks. QS  

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Why RSVP Is Dying

by Quentin Schultze

I hate to admit it to myself after years of denial, but RSVP is nearly dead. Why? I’ve always been an RSVP fan. I appreciate it when someone invites me to an event and provides a way for me to indicate whether or not I expect to attend. When I get an invitation without an RSVP, I’m […]

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Listening with Childlike Curiosity and Wonder

by Quentin Schultze

A basic principle of servant communication is that listening is the most important communicative skill. Listening is how we become intimate with reality so that when we speak or write we know what we’re talking about and who we’re talking with. But listening is not easy. I believe it’s the hardest communication skill to learn. […]

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Communicate from Your Heart

by Quentin Schultze

Heart-to-heart communication is the most powerful. Facts and logical arguments have their places in our communication, but they are wooden without the heart of the speaker connecting with the hearts of the audience. We communicate with heart when we touch each other’s basic humanity—the deepest emotions that we all share, such as fear, hope, joy, […]

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The 2 Basic Problems in Our Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Two very basic, recurrent patterns cause most of our communication breakdowns. First, we emotionally cocoon ourselves. We’re not willing to open up. We’re afraid of what others will think—especially someone in authority, such as a boss, parent, or pastor. So we take the safe route of guarding our deeper feelings. In organizations where there is […]

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3 Reasons Not to Ask Questions

by Quentin Schultze

Contrary to common sense, asking questions isn’t always the best way to improve mutual understanding in our communication. Here’s why: #1 When we ask a question we set the agenda. We tell the other person what we want to know about and what he or she should speak about. What if the other person wants […]

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The New Power of a Handwritten Note

by Quentin Schultze

As email and texting are becoming forms of junk mail, handwritten thank-you notes are gaining renewed importance. When I went to a local printer to buy a few hundred personalized note cards, the proprietor told me that he doesn’t get many orders anymore. “People just order a couple dozen online if they need any,” he […]

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Use Your Body Instead of PowerPoint

by Quentin Schultze

I use PowerPoint, but very selectively. My body is more effective. So is yours. Here’s why. The most potent multimedia technology in the world is the human body, including our voices. We’re wondrously multisensory creatures. No humanly devised communication technology can compete with the body. The next time you’re at restaurant just watch and listen […]

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Tweets = New Bumper Snickers

by Quentin Schultze

Every medium has precedents. Social media came out of everything from bedroom sleepovers to water-cooler gab and social shopping. What about Twitter? Post-It notes gone public? Maybe. A better possibility is the bumper sticker. Especially the ones that reflect self-expression rather than just group identity. Especially slightly snarky ones—the bumper snickers. You can buy them […]

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Facebook—The New Front Porch

by Quentin Schultze

Facebook is the new front porch. In the suburbs, mostly unused rear decks have replaced the more neighborly front porches. Along came Facebook for the cyber-suburbs. It’s the new place for gathering, gossiping, and goofing around. It’s become a natural way to find out about friends, relatives, and peers. Used well, Facebook equips us to […]

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Listening as Hospitality

by Quentin Schultze

When we truly listen to others, we provide places in our minds and hearts for them. This is one of the most important forms of hospitality. Only then can we get to know them. Only then can we empathize and sympathize. Only then can we begin to love them as distinct persons. So listening gets […]

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Communication Theories Worsen Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Many communication theories are based on the idea of manipulating people. Just take a look at the titles of communication-related books at your local bookstore.  They’re all about how to get what we want from others. Even about verbally abusing people. The result is that we lose trust in one another. Real communication suffers. We […]

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Cross-Cultural Communication Requires Cultural Roots

by Quentin Schultze

We can’t communicate well across cultures unless we’re rooted in our own culture. Why? Because we need to know who we are before we can know who we aren’t. How ironic!  Today, we naively assume the opposite, namely, that we have to give up our own cultural roots in order to connect with those form […]

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Kind v. Snarky Tweets

by Quentin Schultze

Who doesn’t enjoy snarky retorts that put deserving folks in their places? They are a mainstay of situation comedies, especially when the stories can’t carry the humor. Snark = snide remark. Twitter has little space for narrative. It’s all about simple, direct expression. Including clever criticism. Lewis Carroll’s fictional “snarks” in his nonsensical poem “The […]

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Transmission Isn’t Communication

by Quentin Schultze

Sending messages is not the same as communication. Communication requires shared understanding. We live in a storm of mediated messages. Most supposed communication is just noise. Like ads that few people pay attention to. Bruce Springsteen once sung about “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Little did he know how many channels there would be in […]

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Authors Need Approval

by Quentin Schultze

We writers need approval. Putting our words online or in print opens us up to public criticism. To rejection. So we might want to say what others want to hear in order to gain flattery. Ears get tickled, but truth suffers. Although we’ll still suffer rejection, by speaking the truth kindly, winsomely, we’re more likely […]

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Mutual Communication v. Careerism

by Quentin Schultze

The Protestant Reformer John Calvin used the term “mutual communication” to refer to mutual service rather than selfish careerism.  “It is not enough when a man can say, ‘Oh, I labor, I have my craft,’ or ‘I have such a trade.’  That is not enough.  But we must see whether it is good and profitable […]

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Loving Strangers as Neighbors

by Quentin Schultze

SServant communication is all about loving our audience as our neighbor. It doesn’t make any difference how close we are to our audiences. Even strangers merit our goodness and kindness. Everyone we stumble upon is a special person. If nothing else, each person deserves respect. This means being slow to speak and quick to listen […]

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