The Intangibles of Leadership: Communication Conundrums

Leadership: Connecting with participants

In March, we started talking about communication. I asked us, as leaders, to reflect on these questions:

  • Were we mindful of the “novices” in our community?
  • Did we adapt our communication so those individuals felt welcome? If not, why not?
  • How would we change our approach in the future?

I recently returned to these questions after leading a multi-day, skills-based training in New Hampshire. After the training, I thought, “That was great! I really enjoyed working with my co-instructor and I loved getting to know the group, as a cohort and as individuals. I can’t wait to hear the feedback from our participants.”

Would you be surprised to learn there was some constructive feedback in the evaluations which prompted my reflection? I learned I wasn’t as effective in connecting with my participants as I thought. Talk about a conversation gone awry!?!

The experience reminded me of the first lesson I learned working in customer service:

  • Human beings are complex individuals, whose lives are rich, interwoven tapestries, and we only ever glimpse a part of that whole in our interactions with each other.

Here’s an example:

Let’s pretend you work in customer service at a popular retail store. A customer walks in the door and beelines directly toward you. In the 2-3 seconds before that person reaches you, you don’t know what type of interaction will occur. Will the person slam a bag onto the counter in front of you and launch into a tirade about product quality & cost? Will the individual gently, almost apologetically, place the bag down, and wait for you to initiate a conversation? Or ____? (Fill in the blank. The possibilities about what might happen next are nearly endless.)

The customer in question might be:

  • Exhausted. There is a newborn baby at home who refuses to sleep – ever;
  • Timid. The person is extremely shy; or
  • Any other emotion you can imagine for a variety of reasons.

When the customer appears in front of you, the two of you are strangers. However, you share a common goal. You both want to a positive solution to the problem.

Sound familiar? Our role, as leaders in the outdoors, is similar. We plan & advertise an activity, folks sign up (or show up) for it, and, for the duration of that activity, we work toward a common goal or objective.

Our knowledge of our participants is perpetually incomplete and that is challenging. As we strive to effectively relate to our participants, we step into the world of customer service. We aren’t always successful. Remembering that conversations sometimes go awry because humans are complex creatures, with rich, complicated stories, can be helpful.

When communication does go awry – not if, but when – then what? Can we create the space, for ourselves and our participants, to step away from a negative interaction and ask, “Is it possible I am bringing something into this conversation which is affecting the outcome? If so, what is it? Can I put it aside and change the dynamic of our discourse and be more effective? Or would it help to share something more of myself with my participant(s) so we can better understand each other?”

We’ll talk more about that next time as we continue discussing “Conversations Gone Awry: Lessons from the World of Customer Service.” In the meantime, I am thankful for the feedback I received and the reflection it prompted. So, perhaps I was right after all — it was a really great training.


Search AMC Outdoors and Blogs

Search for:

Kristi Hobson Edmonston

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.