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Leading by Making Real Connections

Given all of the disruptions and changes in our lives over the last two years, I hear more and more people discussing the need to connect. There is a sense of urgency to be authentic in our interactions and not allow the status quo to keep us in places that haven’t been good for us in the past. As I consider this, it strikes me that finding ways to genuinely connect with our audience, large groups, small teams, or even individuals has always been important, but seemingly now is even more critical as we consider the well-being of those around us.

An Indeed publication from a few weeks ago entitled, Leadership Skills: Definitions and Examples notes that leadership skills are not a list of individual skills, but instead a mixture of several skills that play out at the same time. In the list of the traits that get mixed and mashed together we find:

  • Patience

  • Empathy

  • Active listening

  • Effective feedback

  • Team building

  • Ability to teach and mentor

When looking at this description, I immediately thought of Dr. Annissa Roland, Senior Associate at the Schlechty Center.

Annissa has facilitated learning with thousands of educators from around the country. The professional learning experiences she provides to teachers, principals, central office personnel and school superintendents causes people to become reflective practitioners who are willing to be honest and maybe even vulnerable about their growth as professionals. Having seen her in action, I had to ask her, “How do you truly connect with an audience?” What follows is the discussion we shared on this topic.

Emmy Beeson, Executive Leadership Coach at WeInspireWe: When you hear the phrase, “connect with your audience” what does that mean to you?

Annissa Roland: I think about developing a relationship with them. What is it that they want to get out of the experience? I try to figure out how to get those results. I consider how to honor them as professionals. I really want to connect with them as humans who have strengths and weaknesses and values and help remind them of their greatness and to speak life to them. I want to connect with them personally so we laugh, we smile, we “on purpose” share our mistakes out loud and celebrate them. It is really about bringing the human connection to the forefront.

If you ever get the opportunity to stand in front of someone and talk to them, why not speak life to them? If you are holding the mic, speak life, grow them, love them, encourage them because they are people.

WIW: Share with us the life experiences that you have had that cause you to look at connection in this way?

Annissa: Because I have chosen to work in education, I have had a lot of opportunities to see people emotionally destroyed in the learning process. Age doesn’t matter. I’ve seen children be emotionally destroyed and adults be emotionally torn down. This is very painful to watch from the outside and say, “Ok, here is an opportunity to build someone and they are obviously hurting but they want to be successful in what they are doing. I believe that. People want to be successful!"

Annissa then goes on to share stories of watching both children and adults be hurt by their inability to connect on a human level with others. In one case, adults spoke to a particular child in demeaning ways that then influenced the child to behave poorly; making bad choices, fighting. He was hurting and as a result exhibited behaviors that then caused consequence from the very adults who had instigated the hurt. Likewise, she was shocked by the way managers talked to her colleagues, her friends, when organizational changes were underway. She saw how this affected them emotionally and that they started to see themselves differently based on how those with power and authority spoke to them. The result was “we were killing people with the work.”

These experiences led Annissa to begin her practice of listening, talking with, and pouring into - to try to fill the holes that had been poked into the people around her.

WIW: Based on these initial experiences and your career of providing professional learning to thousands of people, what tips would you share with us regarding how to best connect with our audience regardless of whether our audience is a large crowd or one individual sitting across the table from us?

Annissa: No matter the size of your audience, ask questions to learn from your audience, listen intently and watch body language. Listening intently doesn’t mean just listening to the answer but what is possibly underneath that would cause someone to answer that way. Listen to what is not being said as well as what is being said. I try to position myself as a learner, not an expert because I am really seeking to understand what is happening with the audience, large or small. I want to be a thought partner.

I love to create cognitive dissonance for people but give them a safe space where they can hash it out - out loud. If I can do this, they can stop thinking about what I am trying to tell them and start to think about their own stuff and then I can join them in the thinking. They can get to a space where they are vulnerable and I don’t want to position myself like I know everything but that I am right alongside them.

No matter who I’m talking to, I try to know who they are as much as possible prior to the discussion or learning. I try to know them well enough to put them into the work.

I also celebrate mind-changing. I celebrate questioning. I celebrate not being sure. I celebrate preserving more than I celebrate right answers.

The discussion with Annissa reminds me to always know I am connecting with people. People with hopes and dreams and fears and hurt and joy. I am not connecting with their title; I am not connecting with managers, executives, directors, and coordinators. Behind each job description is a person just like me who has crazy hair in the morning, a messy car, and who dances around the kitchen while cooking. Real people. As leaders, we are privileged to connect with people, not titles. Annissa’s hope is that each of us would remember that if we ever have the opportunity to speak to others (and yes, don’t we do that every day) that we would speak life, remembering that it is as if we are always wearing a mic.


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