Secrets to Effective Communication

not effective communication

Secrets to Effective Communication

By Merle Riepe, PhD

President, SOLVE


Effective communication secrets revealed


Over the summer, my coaching practice has been busy with requests to help leaders improve communication and build relationships. Historically, communication and building relationships are not “unique” coaching topics. However, the context behind the requests has shifted. As leaders are relying more on technology to connect to their remote team (and one another), the combination of isolation and pressure to meet demands has created the perfect environment for “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.” As a result, leaders are experiencing (or creating) greater hostility, work fatigue, and/or fear of failure. You may be observing this with your leaders, and I’d like to share some of the techniques I teach. I hope you find them of value in your communications or in your coaching of others.


Recently, I began working with “Claire” – a technology executive – who depicted her challenge as being the “quickest thinker in the room.” As she described it, her peers and the team were “slow to come around” and “require a lot of input to see things the way I do.”


As you can see, Claire carried several cognitive distortions and assumptions, which were leading to communication errors. Her peers unsurprisingly described her as antagonistic, a know-it-all, and lacking emotional intelligence.


In Claire’s defense, she probably was the smartest person in the room based on her accomplishments and savvy decisions (and a critical thinking assessment placed her at the 83rd percentile among US executives). But, as she elevated in the organization, she failed to see her audience change and did not adapt her style accordingly.


I taught Claire the Five Secrets of Effective Communication over the course of four coaching sessions. I learned this set of techniques from Dr. David Burns, a pioneering thinker in psychology who I’ve referenced in previous communications. Dr. Burns contends (and I agree) that meaningful relationships can be rehabilitated and cultivated by adopting these simple techniques:

  1. Disarm.
    1. What: Find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you believe it is unjust or unreasonable.
    2. Why: Sets the stage for the interaction. Agreeing with the other person in any way establishes you are open to discussion and demonstrates you seek to work together and not against one another. It is recognizing shared accountability for the success of the relationship.
    3. How: “Bryce, you’re right, at times I can be stubborn and quick to dismiss new ideas.”
  2. Empathize.
    1. What: Put yourself in their position – what might they be thinking or feeling? Communicate your beliefs on how they might be thinking and/or feeling. Test your assumptions so you know the context and understand what the other person is seeking.
    2. Why: It is a lot easier to win at poker when the other person is willing to show their cards. Nearly everyone wants to know they are being heard before they are willing to listen. By putting your own needs aside for the time being, you garner trust and respect from the other person. This approach allows you to “check your facts” so you avoid directing the conversation in a meaningless and/or frustrating direction due to faulty assumptions you made.
    3. How: “Bryce, I imagine you’re probably feeling annoyed, defeated, and perhaps angry, because you think I’m not listening to you or considering your ideas. Is that true?”
  3. Inquire.
    1. What: Ensure the other person has exhausted every thought, concern, and feeling so you fully understand what they are seeking as well as their current mood and thoughts. Gently probe, “is there anything else you’re feeling or thinking?”
    2. Why: It confirms nothing is being left unsaid. It also reinforces your concern for them and their needs.
    3. How: “Bryce, are there other things I do that upset you or create the perception I’m not open or listening?”
  4. Assert.
    1. What: Now that the other person has exhausted their thoughts and feelings, it is time for you to express your thoughts and feelings using “I feel…” statements. Semantics are incredibly important – generally speaking, avoid the word “you” when you assert.
    2. Why: You can only get that for which you ask. By helping the other person know how you are feeling, it allows them to “team up” with you to solve the problem versus them needing to focus on how to defend against your attacks.
    3. How: “Bryce, I often feel a great sense of urgency when we meet, and I get frustrated because I don’t get the sense you and others are following along with me. Sometimes I get frustrated at myself because I see things so clearly, yet I’m unable to articulate that to you and others in a way that connects and moves us forward.”
  5. Respect.
    1. What: Find something genuinely positive to say about the other person. Convey an attitude of respect, regardless of your current frustrations.
    2. Why: Demonstrate you care about them as a person and your critiques/concerns are around an approach or an idea, rather than a criticism of the person.
    3. How: “Bryce, I have tremendous respect for you and your ability to ask questions that make me think. I appreciate your candor today and I’d like to consider some of your feedback. I’d like to circle back with you and continue this conversation if that sounds good to you?”


Claire was able to learn these effective communication secrets in quick fashion – four hours working together. At our quarterly check-in she provided me an update on her successful application:

“Merle, I’ve been amazed by the reactions I get from others when I begin a crucial conversation by agreeing with them. I can physically see the negative feelings release when I say, ‘you are correct’ – it’s like I’ve discovered a superpower in my communication style. Bringing more empathy to my conversations has caused me to reassess some of my old thinking about others and I’ve come to realize I was creating most of my obstructions with them. In a couple instances, it bordered on embarrassing, and I’ve spent the last few months expressing my condolences to those who experienced the old me. Granted, that person is still around and rears her ugly head from time to time, but simply being aware has prevented any major relapses. Most of all, it has helped me build a better relationship with my boss, which has made accomplishing my goals easier and I certainly feel like she trusts me again.”


Claire’s progression is amazing. And it isn’t uncommon among leaders who embrace the effective communication secrets. Assuming a leader can move past internal resistance to change (the biggest limiting factor to leadership growth), adopting a new mindset is much simpler than it sounds. When the rewards of meaningful relationships and greater trust are realized, behavior change endures.

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