UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Executive Coach Insight: Effective Communication and Influence


Active listening and speaking assertively are critical factors to influencing others, yet successful communication can be one of the most significant challenges leaders face.

People judge others on how they communicate. Failure to communicate effectively can create significant obstacles for a leader despite other strengths they might possess, notes executive coach G. Peter Morris.

Morris has worked with more than 2,000 executives during the past 19 years and has worked as an executive coach with UNC Kenan-Flagler students.  He notes that many leaders mistakenly identify effective leadership as solely making things happen in organizations.

“So often we think of influencing as what I can do to convince another person to do something,” he says. “But the secret is, to be effective in influencing someone else, the other person must believe that you are open to their influence, that you truly understand their point of view and are willing to change your position.”

Active listening is the most important step you can take to communicate respect to another person, and, therefore, is an important start to influencing others, according to Morris.

“We don’t do a very good job of listening to our subordinates or to our peers and truly understanding what they are thinking and how they see the world,” Morris notes. “We don’t have to agree with their viewpoints but we do have to openly receive and consider them.”

Because body language and tone of voice carry over 90% of our message, they have far more impact on a listener than our words. As a consequence, Morris advises leaders that, to become good active listeners, they must be aware of and use their tone of voice and body language effectively. Examples he cites, include managing space by leaning forward, making good eye contact, paraphrasing what the speaker has said and asking clarifying questions

“Our point of view has to be cleared from our mind, and we have to focus on being totally open to understand what that other person is saying.”

Much of the way people communicate is defined by the emotions they are feeling. Active listeners need to be aware of this and both manage their own body language as well as read the body language of the other person.

“If you are checked out and not engaged in the conversation your body language immediately gives you away,” he adds. “If you are sincere about communicating your point of view or listening to another’s point of view your body language will carry that message.”

Because body language makes emotions transparent, leaders need to manage but not try to hide their emotions. Instead they should be clear about how they feel and express why:

  • For example, a leader could say, “I am very frustrated because the project that was due on Friday is delayed.”
  • This can be followed up with a statement of what the leader needs or expects and a clear, but concise, explanation of why the action is required.
  • When leaders make a statement like, “This is what I need you to do,” they can mitigate the impact by checking in with the other person through the use of an effective question such as, “Do you agree?” or “Can you do that for me?”

Morris, who is author of the forthcoming book “Listen to Understand, Speak to be Understood,” also highlights several negative communication habits that effective leaders should try to avoid:

  • Using the word “you” as opposed to “I” when asking someone to do something: “When someone uses the pronoun ‘you’ to express their position it often places the other person on the defensive. It causes the other person to subconsciously say, ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ Instead, we should use the pronoun “I.” (For example, leaders should not say “you need to do ….” but, rather, state “I need you to do …..”) Many of us  are reluctant to use ‘I’ yet it is one of the most powerful, positive, pronouns in our language.”
  • Using sarcasm and cynicism:  “Sarcasm can be a pinprick to one person and a dagger to the heart to another. Sarcasm and cynicism are typically at somebody’s expense or at the organization’s expense. When you are in a leadership role  it is not appropriate to be cynical about the organization or demeaning of others.”
  • Ignoring and interrupting: “When somebody interrupts me, 90 % of the time I stop talking even if I am in mid-sentence. If they are interrupting me they are not thinking or listening to what I have to say. I can finish my thought later when I get their attention back.”