Most of us, at one point or another, have an experience of dancing with someone. Maybe it was very formal, like a big event, or something informal, like dancing with a bunch of friends at a club or party. Did you ever end up dancing with someone you didn’t know and you have no idea what this person is doing, and what you are expected to do in response? As anyone who has had this experience can attest, when you don’t know the person you are dancing with, if you do not understand what that person is doing and expecting you to do, it is much harder to move well together.
In ballroom dancing, dancers need to connect to their partners. It is not enough to know the steps of a dance. Dancers need to connect to the person they are dancing with in order to create the dance itself.
Earlier I discussed the dynamic of leading and following, and the clear intention with each movement to produce a particular result. Dancers need to be able to communicate that intention to one another without words, and move together as a connected being rather than two creatures dancing alone. But it is more than the push and pull action; it requires a strong connection to correctly interpret the push and pull.
This connection is key to making a dance come to life. While technique stays the same, each dancer has his or her own style. Some dancers may make grand, sweeping steps while others are more contained; some dancers have particular preferences as to how hands are placed or how to exaggerate a line or how the emotion should be expressed in a given movement. There are only too many ways in which dancers can make a dance truly their own. But it means that in order to make and maintain the connection with one another throughout the dance, the dancers need to know one another.
In international standard dances such as waltz, foxtrot, tango, Viennese waltz, and quickstep, dancers are literally connected center-to-center, heart-to-heart. In these dances, dancers need to constantly keep their cores connected to each other, and that is ultimately how the leader moves the follower. The follower cannot see the movement or intention; the follower has to feel it to move in sync with the leader. (If you have never danced one of these dances, imagine trying to follow someone’s movement with your eyes closed. You cannot see what is happening, and so you have to be attuned not only your body but also to how the other person is moving.)
Dancers need to connect to their partners, and that means that they need to know know how their partners’ think, how they move, how they act and react as they go into the dance.
The same principle is true in communication. All communication is goal-oriented, intended to produce a particular result that serves an organizational goal. But in order to achieve that goal, leaders and organizations need to connect to those who will help to achieve it. Specifically, leaders and organizations need to persuade their audience to think, feel, know or do a particular thing in order to achieve their goal.
But how can leaders and organizations move their audience in a way that will help to achieve their goals? To connect with an audience, leaders and organizations cannot simply assume that their audience will automatically follow them on the leader’s terms. Unlike in dancing, we cannot assume that our audience will follow whatever cues we give. We need to communicate in ways that will resonate and move the audience. And what moves one audience may not move a different audience, and what moves that audience may not move the leader of the organization.
When trying to move an audience to think, feel, know or do something, it is the leader that needs to meet the audience on its terms. To move your audience, you need to connect with it on its own terms. And in order to connect with your audience you need to know them. You need to know how the audience already thinks, feels, or acts if you hope to move them to think, feel, know or do something.
Just as a dancer needs to connect with their partner to create a beautiful dance, leaders need to connect to their audience on the audience’s terms if they want to achieve their goals.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.