Regardless of political convictions, I think we can all agree that President Ronald Reagan was indeed the "The Great Communicator," who, during a difficult time in our country’s history, restored our national self-confidence. Some believe that he was a gifted public speaker only because he was a former actor, but it was much more than that.

Reagan was also a good listener and used candor, modesty, and his wit to relate to all types of people. Above all, he was skilled at using these tools to resolve conflict.

Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War was perhaps his most significant achievement. He reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev on a personal level in order to bypass the limitations on communication that are inherent in bureaucracies. I will remember forever the pictures of Reagan and Gorbachev at their meeting in Geneva in November 1985, walking outside in the fresh air, chatting like old friends.

Recently, our firm held its own annual summit. (Onamia, Minnesota, is not exactly Geneva, but it was still lovely.) We discussed specific work-related topics, reviewed case studies, and ended the meeting with a workshop on effective communication and teamwork.

Business issues have nowhere near the significance of the nuclear arms race, but Reagan’s effectiveness in communicating is a good example for all of us. It’s a fact that every organization has some amount of conflict, and that some conflict is healthy. But the way an organization communicates and resolves conflicts determines whether the conflict is useful. Unresolved conflict results in hot tempers getting hotter, departments becoming more isolated in their "silos," and personal agendas looming larger. As a result, fewer deadlines are met, goals are missed, customers are not served, and profits get slimmer.

Get the picture? Not a pretty one, is it? Let’s see what "The Great Communicator" would have done in these situations. (All quotes are from Reagan’s An American Life: The Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1990).

"In the letter to Chernenko, I said I believed it would be advantageous for us to communicate directly and confidentially. I tried to use the old actor’s technique of empathy: to imagine the world as seen through another’s eyes and try to help my audience see it through my eyes."

According to our off-site workshop facilitator, Louellen Essex, some of the reasons for poor communication are not gearing the message to the receiver, lack of clarity, producing defensiveness through judgmental words, and lack of active listening.
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