The Definitive Guide in Communication Skills for a Leader (2021)

What should leaders do with their eye contact, expressions, and hand gestures when they speak, listen, and give feedback? How would a leader talk to be perceived as a competent and confident person? In this guide, we will tell you all the secrets you need to know.

The Definitive Guide in Communication Skills for a Leader (2021)
President Abraham Lincoln is definitely one of the greatest examples of leadership in the history.

Have you ever listened to how a good leader talks that change your perspective towards something? It’s probably an alarming issue, a motivating change, a knowledge, a call-to-action, or a sharing of information that adds value. I did, and I am always fascinated by how effective communication can work like magic that educates, inspires, and unites people.

How a leader speaks can miraculously change people’s attitude and mindset towards something completely, and this is a skill that all aspiring leaders must possess to lead the people and to create a good company culture.

In this definitive guide, we will be examining together what you need to do to communicate like a leader under three kinds of situations: A) when you are speaking; B) when you are listening; and C) when you are providing feedback.

So how are these leaders communicating differently than followers?

Eye Contact

Eye contact is an essential body language for a leader because it is a symbol of confidence, respect, and trust. We all know we need to maintain our eye contact with the person we are connecting with as a sign of friendliness, but there is a different use of eye contact under different kinds of situations as a leader.

A) When you are speaking

No matter you are giving a speech during the meeting or a presentation to pitch your product and idea, you need to give eye contact to every single person in the room.

Ditch that popular advice that you can look at their forehead, door at the back, the ceiling, or their mouth to conquer your anxiety. It will make a difference in how you look, especially your confidence.

If you want to become a charismatic leader, you have to practice looking at their faces while you are talking, even if you are anxious. You do not have a choice. This is because the right amount of eye contact will increase your likability or authority—depending on your speech context.

We also use eye contact to establish a connection and arouse emotions, especially when we are telling a story. The people will be more likely to remember and stay engaged because they know you are paying attention to them—or I should say, they feel that you care about their opinion, and people like it when they feel their opinions matter.

Barack Obama always makes sure he looks in all directions when he speaks. One serious mistake that many leaders make unconsciously is that they don't look at everyone in the space.

If you are speaking on the stage, make sure you try to involve the audience who sits at the side and the back by maintaining eye contact with them.

Likewise, if you are in the meeting room, make sure you don't just look at managers but also all other staff present in the room.

You would also want to close the distance between you and the people (by standing nearer to them or walking towards them) while looking directly at them when you speak. This is especially powerful when you speak and look directly at the person who asks you a question during a speech or a meeting. This would show that you are confident and engaging.

What about when you want to intimidate people?

You just have to increase your amount of eye contact than you usually have and hold a direct and more extended gaze into the person or the audience that you want to intimidate.

This is Barack Obama speaking when he condemned Donald Trump for his inability to hold on to power. Your tonality and expression play a more important role if you want to intimidate and show your authority. However, you should avoid having a significant increase of eye blinking as this would signal that you are nervous about this confrontation.

B) When you are listening

We can learn how to listen like a leader from the Leadership Expert and book author of "Start With Why," Simon Sinek. When you listen to someone speaking, don't look anywhere else, especially when you're busy on something.

Yes, I type it correct, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU'RE BUSY. This is because you would signal the person that he/she is essential, and you want to pay attention to her. It also signals that you like them and encourages them to open up.

When you give someone eye contact while you are listening, you break down the barrier between you and the person and allow connection to happen. You don't only provide eye contact, but you also move your body towards the person, like how Simon Sinek did.

It shows that you welcome their feedback, and it makes you more engaging. If it feels unnatural to maintain eye contact for too long and you want to avoid it becomes seductive, you break the contact, and you can nod your head as a sign that you are still listening.

C) When you are giving feedback

As a leader, you always have to give feedback—positive or negative. However, it is tricky for eye contact when you are providing evaluations to a person depending on the context.

A classic study by Ellsworth and Carlsmith (1968)shows that you can maintain eye contact when you are giving positive verbal content about the person.

However, suppose you are giving negative verbal content. In that case, you have to decrease your eye contact and avoid direct gazing at the person to evaluate you and the content positively. You can look at your file, the painting behind the person, or the person's hands—just don't look directly into the person's eyes while you are talking about something negative, especially about the person, because it can signal a confrontation, a sign of dominance, and a threat.

After you talk, you should look at the person in a neutral expression while listening to the person replying to you—as we discussed above, if you want the whole experience to turn out positive.

Expressions

Facial expressions can be positive like surprise and happiness or negative like disgust, sadness, and anger. We are always being told that the people at the top, especially leaders, should maintain a neutral expression whenever possible because smiling is submissive behavior.

This is why the portrait in the past always look like this:

King Henry VIII.

They did not only not smiling for the portrait, but also in real life. The rationale behind this is because the influential people wanted to create a mysterious atmosphere and didn't want to let their opponents or the courtiers know what they were thinking through their expressions.

But does this still apply to the modern days' leaders? Let's see how modern days' leaders pose for their photos:

A collage of how leaders smile. From the left: Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore), Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Joe Biden (United States), Moon Jae-in (South Korea), Angela Merkel (Germany).

You would notice that some seem to be more exciting, while some seem calmer, which can be because of their cultural difference, but they are all smiling instead of putting on a neutral expression.

This is because a smile makes you look sincere, trustworthy, democratic, and likable. In the past, the leaders were often monarchy, and they needed people to submit to this kind of authoritarian rule. This is why they smiled less.

In modern days, leaders are elected by the people, so they tend to smile more to signal a level of openness and honesty. However, do leaders show emotions while they are talking, listening, and providing feedback?

A) When you are speaking

It depends on whether you are speaking in a formal event or don't. During a formal context, the leaders smile less when they are talking in order to appear more professional, calm, mature, and trustworthy, also because they don't want people to threaten them and take them lightly.

This is President Xi Jinping delivering his 2019 New Year speech. You might think that a new year speech is supposed to be an exciting speech but President Xi did not smile at all during his entire 11 minutes speech. His speaking rate is slow and precise.

As the audience was laughing, Elon Musk did not seem to be laughing. When leaders speak, they often just show a mild emotion on their faces, even when telling an emotional story to remain professional.

We use words like 'I am disappointed,' 'I am thrilled,' 'It's exciting' to express our feelings instead of facial expressions. This is just like a singer seldom loses control and cries even she is performing a sad and emotional song.

However, this does not mean that you should be putting on a blank expression most of the time. Depending on the occasion and event, you can smile more to look authentic and calm because this is when you'd be seen as too tense, inappropriate, and impolite when you don't.

This is President Xi when Prince William asked him if he wanted to test drive an Aston Martin.

Most people think that a leader should put on an emotionless face most of the time to appear dominant and powerful. However, your authority and influence have already come with your status and power.

You would notice that President Xi and Elon Musk looked relaxed and smiling when they shouldn't be too serious. Elon Musk seemed much more relaxed than he looked in most of his formal speeches when he attended The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Depending on the context, you show your seriousness and professionalism through your expressions that are mostly neutral or happy because a negative expression—especially anger and disgust would often be read and judged by the people as immature, unprepared, or incompetent. This is why Donald Trump wasn't too respected by the people as he always showed his emotions in public.

B) When you are listening

When a good leader listens, he truly listens.

A leader should always be opened to criticism and feedback and address it adequately whenever it's appropriate. If you need the people to tell you what's actually happening in the team or the company, you should create a culture that anyone could come to you to report instead of building resistance for it.

This includes encouraging them to open up by not judging, criticizing, and defending yourself with your expressions.

A big mistake that leaders like to make is to have negative expressions while they are listening. For example, lips pursing, eyes rolling, or smirking as Jada Pinkett Smith did above.

When you make this kind of expression, you signal that you don't like or agree with what you hear, and hence, you may discourage the person from carrying on the conversation, forming a barrier and appearing to be defensive.

It's not wrong to express yourself while you are listening. However, suppose you want a positive outcome from the discussion or negotiation. In that case, you should try your best to maintain an active listening mode by focusing on them, as shown differently by Jada Pinkett Smith did above, with a more open attitude.

Good leaders would show empathy and compassion whenever they listen to indicate that they are interested in making something better or caring about the people.

C) When you are giving feedback

Just like when you are listening, a leader should maintain a neutral expression and avoid negative expressions—especially anger and irritation, so you make the person feels positive about your feedback.

It's not about making the person happy about it—even it's negative feedback, but to perceive you positively and accept it with an open attitude.

Nevertheless, you may want to avoid smiling because it could signal that you are not firm about it, or the person may take your feedback lightly.

This is Bill Clinton addressing the audience's question by maintaining his eye contact directly with the person with a neutral expression. Watch how he used eyebrow flashing while he's talking.

Another powerful tip is to tilt your head while you are giving feedback. By tilting your head, you appear authentic and concerned. An eyebrow flashing also hints that you are being honest, genuine, and have nothing to hide.

Hand Gestures

Hand gestures are used to aid your oral communication, and they can reveal a lot about your inner state and how confident you are. This is why leaders put a lot of emphasis on how they use their hands when they speak, where they put when they don't, and how they shake their hands.

There are three keywords when it comes to hand gestures—Expressive, Loose, and Steady.

Expressive: What it means to be expressive is conveying your thought, idea, and feeling with your hand movement. For example, you pinch your thumb and index finger 🤏when you want to describe something small, or you show 🖐️ when you want to talk about five points.

An example of holding and hiding your hands that make your shoulders become smaller and look unconfident. Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels

Loose: It means that you don't clench, hold, twist, hide, or play with your hands when you don't use them to express something. Your hands must look natural and not held too tightly, especially when you make a hand steepled or interlaced gesture.

Steady: This means that when you use your hands to express something, you move them calmly and within the box in what I called the "Steady Area":

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Any movement out of this area can be too big to do that may not look calm and professional. This could be due to the perception that a leader should remain balanced, firm, and like strong support for the people who seem to represent calm, peaceful, and tranquil.

So what exactly should you do with your hands when you are speaking, listening, and providing feedback?

A) When you are speaking

We have told you what you should do with your hands—expressive, loose, and steady. Perhaps it can be more helpful for you if we show you what you shouldn't do if you want to be perceived as a confident leader.

  1. Touch yourself

Practice avoiding touching yourself—neck, nose, mouth, and chin whenever you start feeling uncomfortable. Although it is not a lying signal, people generally perceive it as you are nervous and insecure.

2. Fidgeting

Some people like to play with their hands, such as hand wringing, hand rubbing, knuckle cracking, or touching your ring, shirt button, or bracelet.

Prince Charles is also known to fiddle his cufflinks whenever he feels anxious. It is a symptom that you are trying to reduce your tension and stress. You may think this is normal, but it's not when you are doing it on the stage or when there are a lot of people trying to interpret and look at you.

3. Arms stifferning

This is Jimmy Fallon with stiffening arms and shoulders. When you are speaking (sitting or standing position), practice relaxing your shoulders and spreading your elbows, so they don't look unnatural. When a leader speaks, he/she always takes up spaces, so avoid any posture that would make you look smaller.

4. Hiding hands behind your back

This is unlike the authority posture of exposing your vulnerable body at the front, like your school's principal when he/she is patrolling the school compound.

When you are speaking, it's often better to show your hands on the table, grip them loosely, or make a hand steeple gesture. This signals your openness, honesty, and confidence.

If you are in a standing position, hiding your hands would mean you feel nervous. As a leader, you need to practice putting your hands naturally and comfortably by your side. There is no way to get around that.

Hiding them in the pockets would portray yourself as dominant or over-confident, so it's best to avoid this too.

In case you are using a podium, avoid gripping it, or make yourself bend down so you could use the mic.

Adjust the height of the mic before you speak, so you don't have to make yourself seemed 'smaller,' and you can stand straight with confidence.

5. Arms folding

Just like Donald Trump, you make yourself look smaller when you make an arms folding gesture while you are speaking. This self-hugging gesture does not demonstrate you as a charismatic and confident leader but nervous and in a vulnerable position instead. That's why you protect yourself by closing your body.

If you tend to do this out of boredom, you need to learn to avoid doing this too much. The same idea applies when you put both your arms folding to the front to form a barrier, like a broken zipper position. It signals that you feel overwhelmed by the situation.

6. Palm-down

Although politicians often make this hand gesture, it is a hyper-dominant gesture. It is associated with an authoritarian character and does not actually show that you are confident but excessively confident, making people dislike you when you use it too often while speaking.

7. Finger-pointing

Nobody likes to be pointed at. This is arguably one of the most annoying gestures that a leader can do. Doing this will reduce your likability significantly and signal the people with your aggressiveness, rudeness, and assertiveness—especially you are doing it with anger and disgusted emotions.

8. Hands clasping

This gesture can make you violate the 'loose' principle that we mentioned above because you will find yourself clasping your hands tighter and harder when you are nervous. If you don't clasp them tightly, it's actually a good gesture to use when you speak in a sitting position.

When you practice standing naturally with your hands by your side, you don't only open up your posture, but you would feel less nervous indirectly.

B) When you are listening

Empathetic leadership is when a leader can understand others' needs, feelings, and thoughts. The first step in practicing this is you need to have good listening skills.

Yes, we say it right. Listening is a skill because not every leader has the ability to listen truly with an open mind (accept without judgment), open ear (listen to potential hidden meanings behind it), and open eyes (observe the real situation and body language).

Most leaders fail at their leadership because they shut themselves off from receiving feedback and criticism.

To truly listen, you have to avoid making any gesture that will make you be defensive because our body can always influence our psychology. Also, these gestures are going to discourage people from talking to you. Hence, making it harder for you to receive information.

  1. Playing your hair

Some people, especially women, like to play with their hands out of boredom or to soothe themselves. Whether you are twirling, twisting, or stroking your hair, it does not look engaging and professional. The person talking to you might feel that you are not taking it seriously.

2. Finger (or pen) in the mouth

When you are listening or tensed, you might put your finger or pen in your mouth unconsciously. It's a sign of focus, but it's not a good body language for a leader.

3. Arms folding

When you fold your arms while you are listening, you are displaying a defensive mode. It shows that you are not agreeing, accepting, and engaging. You may also be seen as not having an interest in whatever the person is saying. Not a good posture for a leader to have—unless you are purposely shutting off the person.

C) When you are giving feedback

You might be curious, how to speak and give feedback with proper gestures when there are so many things that you could not do? Here are some common gestures used by leaders that we can learn from:

This is President Tsai using this palm-up gesture when she speaks. It's a gesture that will increase a leader's likability because it shows humility, compliance, and cooperation. It also signals that you have nothing to hide and are being truthful.

Another speaker who likes to use this gesture while talking is Brené Brown, a researcher and speaker of "The Power of Vulnerability".

If you are in a sitting position, you can interlace your fingers loosely, but not tightly.

This is David JP Phillips, the speaker of "The Magical Science of Storytelling" on TEDxStockholm, an excellent example of how a confident posture should look like for a leader by naturally placing your hands by your side when you are not using them to express yourself.

How different leaders sit. From left: President Ronald Reagan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, President Barack Obama, and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Whether it's a standing position or a sitting position, you would find that these three principles apply—expressive, loose, and steady.

Using a sitting position as an example, you would notice that their hands are naturally put on their laps or table. They use their hands to elaborate, describe, and emphasize; they don't hold or grip their hands tightly, and they don't have significant movements.

Natural hand gestures will need some practice, but it's always tricky to use them properly when you speak. For this case, it's always helpful to practice your communication skill to evaluate if they need improvement and provide suggestions on how to express more effectively.

Verbal/Oral Communication

We've covered nonverbal communication for leaders. What about verbal communication? Verbal communication plays a vital role in letting people perceive you as professional and competent. This is because we tend to view someone who can speak coherently and fluently as a charismatic person and associate it with strength and influence.

What seems natural or 'born-to-be' for someone to have, especially in verbal communication, actually requires a lot of practice.

Unfortunately, most people find it difficult to perfect it when working because they rarely have the opportunity or the courage to speak like a leader. You certainly do not want to take each important presentation and public speaking at work like a rehearsal or a practice.

This is why having someone who you can practice with in private, or an online recorder to record how you speak that you can review afterward will help you tremendously in practicing your leadership communication skills.

What are the top three important communication skills for a leader to have?

If you notice, you will find that the best leaders are always the ones who can tell a good story, who can express themselves, and who can articulate well under any situation.

What looks natural for them to do is actually a result of continuous practice. If there is anything you must learn to be a leader who can influence others profoundly, it's this:

  1. Tell stories.
  2. Be authentic.
  3. Speak fluently, especially under stress.

To practice this effectively, you can train yourself to answer different table topic questions and impromptu speech topics each day to help to develop this valuable skill.

It's no longer sufficient to communicate your message with reasoning. You would also have to learn to establish your credibility and speak to arouse people's emotions to persuade your team, company, and clients into believing in something.

Does having good communication skills mean you want to be liked?

As a leader, there's often a fragile line between being liked and being respected. We practice our oral communication, we avoid making gestures that make people hate us, we try to express our authenticity, we listen to them, but are we doing these because leaders have to be liked?

Our answer is, NO.

Leaders couldn't please everyone. That is why you are a leader in the first place. Followers just follow the majority—what most people like and prefer the most.

You want to perfect your skills in communications and leadership because these are what make you contributing to work that you believe in and genuinely care for the people, not because you want to be the most favorite boss or person in the room.

You are doing your best because you want to be RESPECTED as an expert and their chief, instead of being liked. This is because if you just want to be liked, you would not go anywhere—not just you, but your company and the people who follow you. Without going deeper, here's why if you want to know exactly the difference.

To sum up

Why is communication skills necessary for a leader? The simple answer is that it plays a critical role in forming the perception about you as someone they want to be led and respect for your skills and leadership.

Besides, people generally take a clue from who you are by what you do, not what you say. If there is any discrepancies between your nonverbal and verbal communication, they tend to believe what they see (feel) but not what they hear.

If you want to influence effectively, build trust and rapport, and display yourself as authentic, credible, inspiring, confident, and competent, you would have to practice your communication skills.

Most of the tips in this guide can be learned and developed with conscious practice on Rehearso, including eye contact, hand gestures, expressions, and verbal communication. It's better than practicing yourself in front of a mirror because you will be provided feedback and improvement suggestions on the way you speak.

The metrics of your communication skills that can be evaluated for each practice you do on Rehearso.

You would know if you make a good amount of eye contact when you speak, if you use expressive or stiff hand gestures, and if you tend to use negative expressions unconsciously when you talk, or expression that is not aligned with your message content would reduce your trustworthiness. More importantly, you can know if the people actually perceive you as the way you want to be perceived. It is basically a software that works like an online version of Toastmasters Club.

With that being said, we hope you enjoy this definitive guide and looking forward to seeing you lead the world towards a brighter and better place for everyone. Bookmark this page that will be updated from time to time and as a reference that will help you to improve your communication skills!