by Dana Brownlee, President of Professionalism Matters, Inc
As a corporate trainer who teaches topics ranging from communication to leadership skills, it always amazes me that so many of the principles boil down to mantras our moms told us when we were 5. In this case watching the Trump/Military family condolence call melee unravel before my eyes, I couldn’t help but hope the President learned a valuable communication lesson amidst the unfortunate drama – “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
Like many others I was appalled when I heard Congresswoman Frederica Wilson’s account of the condolence call President Trump placed to recently slain Sgt. LaDavid T. Johnson’s widow. On the surface it seemed not just tone deaf but downright cruel to tell this pregnant military wife who was reportedly on her way to greet her husband’s casket “….He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt. “as was widely reported based on accounts by Congresswoman Wilson and later corroborated by a family member. My visceral reaction was that the comments felt more than tone deaf; they felt insensitive, almost cruel. But then the next day, I listened as General John Kelly – a widely respected Gold Star father – recounted his advice to Trump about how to make that “dreaded call” based on the call he’d unfortunately received after his son’s tragic military death. I was shocked when I heard him utter essentially the same words – “Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent”….as part of the call he’d received. But this time when General Kelly uttered them, the meaning, the intention, the tone felt entirely different. The words in this context (and tone) felt compassionate and empathetic.
As one who teaches communication skills to leaders, I was surprised that I was surprised because I know full well how much delivery matters. I’ve often quoted the Mehrabian studies that famously found that 93% of the meaning from a communication typically comes from the non verbals (e.g. tone of voice, inflection, body language, facial expression, etc.), not the words themselves. I often conduct a training activity where I repeat a simple sentence like “Please email me the report before Monday.” emphasizing a different word in the sentence each time each time and then ask the group to tell me what I’m really saying to them with each version of the sentence. Invariably, the meaning of the statement changes fairly dramatically based on which word I emphasize. Likewise, we all have stories about miscommunications at family or home over email or text solely driven by the fact that the receiver misread the tone of the message. For me personally, my husband and I had to agree during our first year of marriage not to text or email anything sensitive in nature and instead wait for a face to face.
Admittedly, I likely received President Trump’s messaging more harshly because that harshness played into the predefined narrative I already had of him as an empathy challenged leader. Just weeks earlier, I cringed as I watched reports of President Trump’s tweets during the midst of the Puerto Rico humanitarian crisis.
Indeed, they didn’t just seem tone deaf or ill timed. They seemed to pour salt into an already gaping wound.
As I considered how differently these two messages seemed to “play” with their audiences even though the content was strikingly similar, I reflected on the lessons we can all extract.
Tips for Leaders Delivering Difficult Messages:
Know your strengths.
Enlist someone else to deliver the message if you’re ill suited. Kelly indicated that his initial advice to the President was to not make the call, and I certainly agree that a leader can show support in a variety of ways and should recognize that they may not be the best spokesperson in every situation.
Whether it’s day of week, time of day, or timing relative to other events, consider these factors to strategically select the most opportune timing for the message. Making depressing announcements right before the holidays may be perceived as callous. Similarly, bright and early Monday morning probably isn’t the best time to deliver bad organizational news that may haunt the workplace for the rest of the day/week. Promptness can also be important – whether it’s acknowledging a team’s great work or offering consolation, doing so closer to the time of the related activity enhances the feeling of authenticity.
When in doubt, consider what you would want to hear if in their position. If your goal is to inspire, motivate, or console, imagine if you were on the receiving end what you would want to hear.
Customize when possible.
When communicating to individuals, remember that each person is unique and what is motivating to one person may not be for another so if possible try to customize content, timing, and mode to best suit the receiver.
Match mode to the situation and audience.
How you communicate can matter more than what you communicate. Remember when Carrie was broken up with on a Post It on Sex and the City… yikes! If it’s complicated, sensitive, or urgent, avoid email or text. If you can’t do it face to face, apologize for communicating by phone and explain why.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.