Tone Deaf

Update: I recently learned that the term “tone deaf” is offensive to some people who are hearing impaired. I am sorry.


I don’t sing well.

This isn’t any form of humility; it is an objective fact supported by decades of people cringing or shuddering when I let loose with my best efforts.. It has gotten somewhat better over the years but I can still vividly remember leading a campfire sing along as a teenager and being laughed at by the whole circle for how far off key I was. That kind of humiliation sticks with you.

I don’t get invited to sing these days, but I do a lot of other public communication. Writing, speaking, facilitating, hosting, and training are all regular parts of my work and personal life. I have a fair degree of confidence in all of them.

The danger is that I can be just as tone deaf in those forms of expression as in music.

And so can you.

It used to be that a lot of leadership communication was to a predictable and supportive audience of insiders and supporters who could be relied upon to give the benefit of the doubt if something sounded a little off. We got comfortable being off the cuff and informal because the conversations were with “the family”. Even if we messed up people assumed the best about us and did the work to figure out what we were trying to say.

Endless examples show us that’s no longer the case.

Today we have to expect that anything we say, write, or post may find it’s way into the public. And that includes those who may be motivated to find and exploit the flaws in our messaging.

Some of us are annoyed by this. We liked it when we could get away with using outdated vocabulary or borderline stories. We felt secure in the confidence that people would “know what I meant” and not “take it out of context”. We feel betrayed by being exposed to critique, ridicule, and judgment.

That may be justified, but it doesn’t matter. The raw reality is that we can no longer control the audience or reach of our message. We need to expect that what we say in a whisper may be broadcast widely.

This requires developing some new skills and sensitivities.

1. Cultural Awareness: As language and culture evolve it’s common for words and phrases that were once clear and acceptable to become ambiguous or even offensive. Haydn Shaw in his book Sticking Points reminds us that only about a generation ago thongs were sandals with a strap between the toes; that’s not the understanding your younger colleagues or community will assume if you talk about leaving yours at the beach.

We need to be active students of the culture, and not just our particular subculture, to ensure that we are sending the message we actually intend.

2. Expertise vs. Opinion: Leaders (like teachers, physicians, or clergy), can easily get into the habit of expecting our ideas to be highly valued. We’re used to people listening to us. Too often that leads us to assuming confidence about things we really don’t understand. Being exposed as ignorant for spouting off on a subject outside our true expertise is a fast way to lose credibility on what we really do know.

We need to stay on topic and be clear about where we are truly expert and where we are just giving our own take.

3. Humility Works: I need to get a lot more comfortable using the phrase “I don’t know”. Admitting some level of uncertainty or incomplete awareness disarms critics and actually increases the confidence of most of our followers who already know we aren’t perfect. Taking a curious posture and being eager to learn are far more valuable in the long run than being a “know-it-all”.

We need to commit ourselves to a lifetime of learning and be students more than teachers.

4. Sincere Apology: Even the best of intentions and careful communication may not prevent a misstep from time to time. Arrogant leaders double down on their statements, feeling victimized, and demand to be judged on their intentions. That only serves to alienate all but the most devoted followers.

Taking responsibility for our errors, acknowledging any harm we have caused, and committing to being better builds bridges. It may be taken advantage of on rare occasions, but more often it will earn an opportunity to communicate again more effectively.

Some of you don’t care. You figure if people don’t or won’t give you the benefit of the doubt you don’t need their support. You’re tired of being so “politically correct”. You value boldness and authenticity and refuse to be so careful all the time. You want the freedom to say things the way you want to say them.

That’s an option. It will inevitably cost you the chance to be heard by significant numbers of people who might be really interested in joining you; but you can rest in your confidence that your way is always right and anything else is compromise. There are a surprising number of people who will rally to that kind of leader.

As for me; I’ll be over here trying to figure out how to share my message in ways where my delivery won’t get in the way of what I’m really trying to say.