Leadership occurs in communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Verbal communication, however, does not mean just talking. Talking is not the same as communicating and not all talking is equally effective. If it were, all of us would have a much easier time doing the things with other people.
One aspect of leadership communication is creating a context for other people. By context I mean a “container”, a “frame”, or a “point of view” that allows people to understand and make sense of things. As Gail Fairhurst, a professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati points out in her book on the Art of Framing, leaders, particularly those involved in change, create frames – alternative views of the world – that help people give meaning to things that are happening or that they are doing.
Framing is evident in the story of the traveler who comes upon three stonemasons hard at work on blocks of marble and asks each in turn what he is doing.
“I am sanding down this block of marble,” said the first;
“I am preparing a foundation”, replied the second;
“I am building a cathedral”, declared the third.
The three statements create a different context and put what each mason is doing in a different light. Although each mason is doing what appears to be the same thing, how the work occurs to them and what it means is different by virtue of the context they have created.
Leaders create contexts through the use of what we call initiative and understanding conversations. In initiative conversations, leaders say the future they want to accomplish, why its accomplishment is important or the difference it will make, and the time frame in which they would like to accomplish it. Of particular importance for people in this conversation is the “why” accomplishing the future is important. Understanding conversations then allow the leader and those who may follow the opportunity to more fully explore the nature of what is being proposed, how it might be accomplished, what will be required, etc. thereby clarifying and developing a context for them.
Creating contexts through initiative and understanding conversations is a critical part of leadership and personal leadership effectiveness.