by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently, I went to my local health club for a cycling class. Some people call it spinning, but I like to call it cycling. (It’s a branding thing.) As I entered the class and hopped on a bike next to my longtime friend Paul—a successful businessman and entrepreneur and usually the only other guy in the class—we quickly realized that we had a substitute instructor named Bob.

Bob was full of enthusiasm and energy, bouncing up and down, telling everyone to “get on your bike, we are going to ride today.” Paul and I were psyched, expecting a challenging class with an enthusiastic leader who would push us for the next hour. As anyone who has taken any exercise class knows, the enthusiasm and passion of the instructor is essential.

However, the class moved on and Bob started singing and dancing (that’s right, he hopped off his bike and started dancing). It became clear that his communication style wasn’t just unorthodox, but a bit confusing. He used every cliché in the book including, “You’ve got to pump it up a notch”, and “Make it burn”. Then he said; “You are halfway up the hill, I can almost see the finish line.” All these expressions sound fine, but what exactly do they mean? When you are in any kind of class, clear and direct communication is essential. As I looked around, I could see that Paul, as well as many other cyclists, had no idea what we were supposed to be doing and we were all spinning at different rates.

As for Bob, he was having a grand old time belting out rock and roll tunes and telling us about his latest athletic accomplishment as he kept jumping off his bike. Finally, a woman in the back of the class yelled out; “Bob, on a scale from 1 to 10, what rate should we be spinning at right now?” Bob stopped dead in his tracks and appeared stunned at the question. After thinking a moment he said, “Between 5 and 6.” Immediately, virtually everyone in the class adjusted the dial that manages the resistance on their bike. The problem was this was halfway through the class and it was only at that point that Bob became more specific in his communication.

The lesson here should be clear. While passion, enthusiasm and energy are key elements to effective communication, they are not nearly enough to get the job done. Bob had those qualities in spades, but he was oblivious to how unclear he was in his communication. His direction was vague, which ultimately made his antics irritating and frustrating. Later when I asked Paul what he thought the problem was, he said; “Bob was using a lot of cliché’s that I’m sure HE could understand, but really he was only performing and communicating for himself.” Paul nailed it. Bob was communicating in what I call an “I-centered” fashion. As long as “I” understand what I’m saying it, everything is fine. But life doesn’t work that way and neither does a cycling class or a business. The job of a leader is to engage others while ensuring message sent equals message received.

So, ask yourself this question. If you were on the other end of YOUR communication, would you understand what was being said? If not, what do you need to do to clarify your message? That’s what is meant by audience-centered communication. Some people call it empathy. But whatever you call it, it is an essential element of successful communication whether in business, a cycling class or in the game of life.