Creating the Leader Who Connects

Training beyond the surface skills.

ByAchim Nowak, Founder and President, Influens

When we train business leaders on their communication skills, we tend to train on how to use language that is precise. Tell stories that resonate. Ask questions that deepen a conversation. Demonstrate listening. For good measure, we throw in a chat about the importance of clear body language.

Is this helpful? Absolutely, but it isn’t enough. Companies are full of gifted leaders who have taken classes that teach these skills, and yet they don’t connect with the sort of resonance that delivers optimal business results.

Recent research conducted by Sandy Pentland and Daniel Olguin at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab confirms we may be missing the point. Pentland and Olguin outfitted five executives with devices that recorded data on their social signals—not what they said, but their tone of voice, gesticulation, proximity to others, personal energy, and more. All that is not spoken.

These signals were tracked just days before each appeared before a panel of judges to present a business plan. Without reading or hearing their pitches, Pentland and Olguin forecast who would present the winning plan. Accurately, of course. When asked which signals are most clearly identified with successful people, Pentland’s answer was emphatic: “The more successful people are more energetic.” (Harvard Business Review, January 2010)

Research, old and new, tells us that resonant connections occur in the unspoken realm, yet we stubbornly insist on training folks almost exclusively on their verbal skills. My hunch is that we don’t train to the deeper levels of a connection because it is difficult to create a frame for exploring the unspoken. Body language tends to be as far as we go. The hidden skills that shape a connection can, indeed, seem elusive. So how do we make them concrete and actionable?

I invite you to consider a simple 4 Levels of Connection framework:

  1. Talk
  2. Power
  3. Intent
  4. Energy

This is an intuitive framework, and more importantly, a trainable one. The first of these four levels is the Talk Level—the level at which we target the bulk of our communication skills trainings. The other three levels—the Power, Intent, and Energy levels—address the unspoken levels on which connections either do or do not happen. The deepest level—Energy—is the one that Pentland and Olguin identify as the key differentiator.

Let’s take a look at the 4 Levels:

Level I Talk: Too often we teach entry-level skills to senior-level leaders. I propose a fresh take on what a leader needs to do well at the conversational level.

It’s been drilled into us that listening is more important than talking, but at some point in a conversation we need to speak. What we say hopefully shows that we have heard the other person. More importantly, it needs to advance the conversation. Here are five principles that help us do just that.

  1. Use language that invites.We have learned to be efficient in our use of language. That’s great for writing an e-mail. It doesn’t foster connection in a conversation.
  2. Demonstrate curiosity.Each conversation is a rapid-fire barrage of cues. Each cue is a door that can be opened. Notice the cues. Open the doors.
  3. Own your point of view.Have a point of view. State it compellingly. And let those with another point of view off the hook.
  4. Tell stories well.Stories foster connection because of their emotional impact. Understand emotional cueing. Embrace the power of the emotional cue word.
  5. Reframe your conversations.Reframing is the invisible art of shaping a conversation. Effective communicators do so with grace.

Level II Power: Great connectors have a conscious relationship with their own power. They also play well with the power of others. They enjoy power rather than fear it. If we don’t know how to invoke our personal power, we instantly diminish our connection with anyone else.

Power models are helpful ways of making the notion of power accessible. I propose a 5 Power Plugs model. It ascribes the experience of power to distinct power plugs:

  1. Position power
  2. Relationship power
  3. Knowledge power
  4. Body power
  5. Charisma power

As we better understand these sources of power, we learn how to best plug into them. We also learn how to effectively relate to these powers in another person.

Level III Intent: Ever since Norman Vincent Peale, the idea that what we think creates the reality that unfolds has become a popular social tenet. Little has been done, however, to teach skills for how we do this effectively in the business world. Three core intents powerfully shape our workplace relationships:

Core Intent #1: We create the impact we desire.

As we articulate clear action intents, we heighten the impact we have on another person.

Core Intent #2: We create the tone we desire.

As we better understand tonal polarities, we consciously shape the tone of our conversations.

Core Intent #3: We choose the social roles we play.

As we decode the social blueprints that tell us how to “act professional,” we make enlightened choices about how we show up.

Level IV Energy: Energy is the heart and soul level at which connections either do or do not happen. Without personal energy—energy that viscerally touches others—our ability to connect is always constrained.

Carl Jung’s division of personality types into introverts and extroverts still serves as the most popular Western notion of how we access energy. Introverts, according to Jung, tend to derive energy from thoughts and ideas, while extroverts tend to derive it from other people. Personal energy, however, is a force that transcends simple cognitive models. Instead of pinning folks into the introvert or extrovert box, let us consider non-Western notions of energy. The Hindus call energy prana, the Japanese ki, the Chinese qi or chi. The closest English term is “life force.”It is imperative that we introduce our leaders to a broader framework for understanding energy. More importantly, we need to provide them with tangible tools for better accessing their life force.

What do we stand to gain by training to the unspoken levels of connection? Leaders who resonate. Conversations that flow. And that is sure to enhance business results.

Achim Nowak is the founder and president of Influens, an international training and coaching firm based in South Florida. He is the author of “Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).


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