Golf and the Art of Communication

 In Communication, Leadership, Performance, Wisdom

Mark Twain described golf as “a good walk spoiled”.

I have managed to mostly avoid the game for my entire life.

My few outings on a golf course were excruciatingly humiliating experiences. I knew what hitting a golf ball looked like. The club often made contact with the ball, but where the ball went was entirely unpredictable; mostly screaming off to the right. I had no means to control this. I found this particularly irritating as hitting balls with cricket bats, tennis racquets and hockey sticks presented no such problem. Getting a golf ball to go straight was a mystery I felt I would never solve, and thought it best to avoid the whole exercise altogether.

But as of this summer, I am now on the hook.

I recently accepted an invitation to join some football buddies for an early morning round. Some excellent coaching and encouragement resulted in a couple of balls going in roughly the intended direction. More than a couple were lost to the trees and waterways that lined the course, but a few propelled me into the midst of an unexpected epiphany; there is something going on here that I can actually get hold of and improve!

I am now the owner of a set of pre-loved clubs (thank you eBay) and a net into which I can hit ball after ball, observing the complex layers of thought, self-direction and action that congeal into a shot. So much data to process in the cause of achieving one simple objective; to send a ball in a particular direction.

By now I will have lost most readers who care not for the game, nor over-analysing metaphors.

But if you have experienced golf’s mental game, you may appreciate the following revelation about the art of communication; about why some communicators hit the mark and others don’t; how on one day, you have the desired impact, and on another, you might as well have not shown up.

Hitting a golf ball, I have discovered, is similar in many ways to my frame-up around communication. The purpose of communication is to move people – their thinking, the feeling state, their knowledge or understanding – in a desired direction; towards action, a decision or desirable behaviour. One aims (or not), prepares (or not), and lets fly. The message is delivered, or not. Communication is generally an imprecise and dynamic activity, and with awareness and insight, discipline and practice, one can get better at it.

And I am finding the same to be true of playing golf.

When practicing, I have noticed that I am capable of two kinds of stroke.

With one stroke, my attention is diffuse. I might be thinking about what’s happening with my feet or my grip, preparing to belt the cover off the ball, or as it most often the case, part of my brain indulges in the observing how it looks. It is almost as if I am pretending to strike the ball. I wind up like Tiger Woods, swing majestically with shoulders and knees rolling in graceful harmony. These shots are the golfing equivalent of a car crash. I often miss the ball altogether, smash the club into the turf inches in front of the tee, or cut the ball like David Warner, sending it two fairways to the right. This is followed by cursing, self-abuse and despair.

The other shot is different in one very specific way. No matter how much self-talk, repositioning of feet, rebalancing of the body, somehow, when I bring the club down and through the ball, my attention is focused on hitting it. I am not pretending to hit it. I am not seduced by the feeling of the swing. I am solely focused on hitting this ball in that direction, and I when I finally lift my head, well into the follow through, I am astonished to see that ball going pretty much where I intended it would go.

It doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, I feel deliriously happy. It has probably triggered a dopamine hit that will keep me coming back for more. I’m on the hook. It is such a good feeling.

It is a lot like telling a joke and seeing the audience completely crack up.

It is a lot like that. And that is my point.

A well-told joke has a lot in common with a well-struck golf shot. And as joke-telling belongs in the realm of communication, along with story-telling, using metaphors, sharing a compelling vision, delivering an inspiring call-to-action, I would say that effective communication – effective leadership communication – has a lot in common with a well-struck golf shot.

Aim. Timing. Effortlessness. Grace. Impact.

I’d add a quality that might surprise you.

Authenticity.

Many people struggle with this thing call “authenticity” and how to define it in terms of their leadership communication. What does it meant to be true to one’s authentic self, particularly as you are always changing, as you grow in age, experience and perspective? “Authenticity” is often used as an excuse to play safe: a nebulous, get-out-of-gaol card that justifies a meek, timid approach to having a strong impact.

See if this idea works for you.

As a golfing novice, the difference between my good shots and my bad ones, is the capacity to cut through all the mind chatter and narcissism, give all my attention to the ball and to simply strike it. There is something about my action during the better golf swings that I would describe as honest or authentic; I’m not going through the motions, pretending to hit it. It is a simple, direct action serving a singular intention.

My observation of leadership communication suggests that the difference between effective communication and ineffective communication, is when a person can cut through the politics, the nonsensical corporate speak and stupefying generalities, and address an issue cleanly and precisely. To tell it as it is, and put their cards on the table; this is where we are; this should be our aim; this is why we should achieve it; this is what we must do and this is how I will support it.

Of course, there are many other layers and variations that shape the art of effective leadership communication. This golfing metaphor probably resembles one-way communication more than dialogue. If this had been a summer of tennis, perhaps tennis and dialogue would be today’s topic. This golfing metaphor has excited my interest because it provides a new lens on authenticity and action.

Authenticity is not just about serving one’s own internal impulses. Authenticity in communication embraces the whole context, including most importantly, the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of your audience. Then comes a moment when you have to go into action, to commit to delivering your message and to just do it.

Try applying this lens to your communication. Observe yourself when communicating in an important moment; a presentation, a negotiation, a confrontation or a coaching session.  Are you actually communicating – delivering a message with a clear intention – or are you going through the motions – speaking and gesturing without really focussing on moving people in a specific direction, or even worse, aping the appearance of strong, sagacious or compassionate leadership?

The litmus test, the difference, is that with one, you are accountable to yourself, and with the other you are not.

Some might consider this a test of your integrity.

Happy golfing.

David McCubbin
Corporate Dramatist, Communication and Collaboration Coach
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