Expert: Understanding the Stakeholder is Key to Communication

Erich Kurschat was sure he’d done a great job, given a great presentation.

He’d done his research and put together his bullet points and stepped into his boss’s office with every intention of “wowing” her. At the end of the five-minute presentation, she was very glassy-eyed.

“She very kindly said, ‘You’re saying a lot and none of it makes sense to me,’” Kurschat recalled. It reminded him of one of his favorite quotes, from playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Kurschat, a connection coach and the owner of Chicago-based Harmony Insights, which specializes in helping companies improve communication skills among their employees, told the story to an enthusiastic audience at a recent webinar, “You’re on Mute: Why you aren’t being heard and what to do about it,” hosted by the National Association for Business Resources in partnership with the Best and Brightest Programs, Corp! Magazine and MichBusiness.

That brief conversation with his boss showed Kurschat how difficult it can be to put together a cohesive conversation. Her reaction, he said, was “unfathomable to me.”

“For me it was so clear, I had done all this research, in my head I understood exactly what I wanted to say,” said Kurschat, who received a bachelor of arts degree from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. “And yet it turned out I wasn’t speaking a language that was going to make sense to her from the very beginning.”

In his career, he has learned the speaker often gets through such conversations and thinks, ‘I don’t’ know if anything I’ve said landed.’

“What I’m hearing back from people is what I intended to communicate,” Kurschat said. “It’s not the speaker who defines whether something has been communicated effectively, it’s the listener.”

Like so many others, Kurschat had been doing the bulk of his communicating virtually – “I can’t tell you how many virtual conferences, how many virtual networking events I’ve attended,” he said — during the covid pandemic.

For a guy who falls into the 25% to 40% of the general population he says identifies as being on the introverted side of things, Kurschat didn’t necessarily mind being virtual.

“I came together with introverted friends and we realized the last couple of years have been comfortable for us in some ways,” he said. “I was a little bit more comfortable with things. I felt like my social schedule was a little bit lighter, I didn’t have as many obligations, I was connecting with people virtually instead in person, something that can be a little more comfortable for me.”

It was an interesting insight for Kurschat, who firmly believes everyone has different ways of connecting – and communicating – with one another. Knowing that, and learning to adapt to speak a language others can relate to, is the key to good communicating, according to Kurschat.

When the global pandemic came along and many of the conversations people were having were on Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Go to Webinar “much more often than we’d been doing before.”

That’s when a phenomenon that hadn’t been involved before became more prevalent in the discussion. How often, Kurschat asked his audience, has someone started to speak and heard the phrase, “You’re on ute?”

“So many of us have been several seconds, if not minutes, into a conversation or something that we’re saying and someone in the audience is flailing wildly because we’re on mute,” Kurschat said. “That hinders communication. We take ourselves off of mute and we assume we’re being heard thereafter. It’s not necessarily the case. Just because there are words coming out of your mouth doesn’t mean they’re resonating with your audience the way you intended them to.”

As it turns out, he pointed out, up to 93% of the meaning of what people are saying comes through in nonverbal communication. As soon as the video goes off, it makes communication that much more difficult.

“We have to figure out how to get beyond the button,” he said. “Zoom and other platforms put this button out there that says ‘unmute,’ so we hit unmute and we assume what we’re saying is landing with our audience.”

The real work, he points out, comes in the attempt to get beyond the button. The first step is identifying the stakeholder, and then figuring out how that stakeholder can best be communicated with.

“There’s not much we can do without first identifying who we are attempting to serve … Communication involves two people, so with whom am I trying to communicate?” Kurschat said. “We often resort to the Golden Rule when it comes to communication. People communicate in different ways, have different references. There’s this cognitive diversity … how we prefer to connect are aspects of diversity that are less easy to see at times but are just as important.

“If we’re taking a cookie-cutter approach … we are going to connect with a smaller percentage of our audience. A much larger percentage are going to say, ‘I’m not sure I get it,’” he added.

The same principles people apply to communication in their personal relationships can be applied in professional settings, as well.

“I’ve devoted my life to my wife … It’s important I speak a language that’s meaningful and impactful to her,” Kurschat said. “We can do that same sort of thing in the workplace. We should choose a language that’s going to be meaningful to our stakeholders.”

It’s where assessments can come in handy, and there are several out there – Kurschat is a “huge DiSC nerd,” preferring the assessment tool DiSC (Dominance, influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness) – that function as a common language for “having this vitally important discussion of how we do our best work and how we connect meaningfully with other people.”

According to Kurschat, each person brings a different preference, and that’s where the cognitive diversity comes in.

“If we’re taking a cookie-cutter approach to our communication, we’re only connecting with a small subset of people,” he said. “We have to then come to figure out what makes other people tick, what their tendencies are. Once we understand ourselves, we have to come to understand our audience.”

Kurschat offered a few ways to do that:

  • Author Stephne Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” “It’s so easy to come into conversations regardless of what your professional position is and be so enthusiastic about life and what you do that you begin speaking,” Kurschat said. “The person in front of you is, and should be, the most important stakeholder in your world at that time. If you don’t know what their challenge is, how can you begin to serve them in any meaningful way?”
  • Pay attention to a stakeholder’s work space.
  • Watch the stakeholder’s nonverbal communication “There are different ways you can observe from nonverbal communication and get a sense of what style our stakeholder might prefer,” Kurschat said.

The goal is to gain a starting point, to get a sense of what the audience needs.

“If it’s what we bring naturally, that’s a match made in heaven,” Kurschat said. “But if we have to adapt, it gives us a place to start.

“There is no substitute for sitting down with somebody and asking them very pointed questions,” he added. “Quite often, we’re wearing what we value – our tendencies and preferences — on our sleeves. We just have to be more observant. If we’re not intentional … we apply the Golden Rule and treat others the way we would like to be treated … it’s difficult work.

The challenge becomes how do we … get out of our own way to come to understand this congnitive diversity, this diversity in lived experiences, in how we do our best work and connect with others.

Once you understand you, and understand your stakeholders, the last piece is to adapt.

“So many of us resort to what comes naturally,” Kurschat said. “But what if the effort and time you put into adapting to speak someone else’s language meant they felt seen, they felt heard, appreciated and respected? “I would argue that is well worth any time and effort and discomfort that we have to endure, because someone else walks away feeling seen, heard and appreciated. That’s so valuable.”