Responsive CommunicationIt’s a fact: Leaders who are the most successful in higher education environments possess exceptional communication skills. In my more than 20 years as an Executive Coach for higher education leaders, I’ve coached hundreds of professionals on how to improve their communication effectiveness. One of the most important steps you can take to improve your skills is to master the power of responsive vs. reactive communication.

In today’s post, we’ll look at the difference between reactive and responsive communication, and I’ll walk you through three steps that will help you be an intentional, responsive communicator rather than an impulsive, reactive communicator.

Reactive vs. Responsive Communication

First, let’s look at reactive communication. Below is a list of traits associated with a reactive communication style.

Reactive Communicators

  •  Allow their emotions to drive their interactions with others.
  • React at a gut level that’s driven by emotions that stem from fear, hurt feelings, and other personal emotional triggers.
  • Are impulsive; their emotions take precedence over reasoned thought.
  • Can come across as difficult, turf protectors.
  • Are often aggressive rather than assertive.
  • Are defensive rather than open.
  • Tend to be polarizing and shut down healthy debate.
  • Often discount others’ feelings; they may even verbally attack others.
  • May adopt bullying tactics.

Reactive communicators over-focus on their own beliefs and opinions, and they place their needs and wants above others’ needs and wants. In a higher education environment, where collaboration and respect for others is essential, reactive communicators wreak havoc instead of breeding a sense of team spirit and unity.

Now, let’s look at responsive communicators, who make excellent leaders, peers, and staff in higher education institutions. Responsive communication is the opposite of reactive communication.

Responsive Communicators

  • Stand up for themselves and are assertive rather than aggressive.
  • Take great care to handle interactions with others with respect and diplomacy.
  • Are not immune to having emotional responses, but they do not allow those emotions to take the lead.
  • Think through situations from a big-picture perspective.
  • Encourage healthy debate.
  • Welcome differing viewpoints and are open to opinions that may clash with their own opinions.
  • Practice good listening behaviors.
  • Favor fair, calm, honest communication that steers clear of inappropriate emotional intensity.
  • Are considerate when interacting with others.

When a responsive communicator speaks, it is from a place of pure intention, not impulse. Responsive communicators are intent on understanding the full picture rather than jumping to conclusions that could be incorrect.

Team building is a key skill for any higher education leader, and responsive communicators are excellent at creating and building cohesive, collaborative team environments.

Mastering the Power of Responsive Communication:  3 Ways to Respond Intentionally

The truth is, very few people are “reactive” or “responsive” all the time; most of us tend to lean one way or the other, but seldom interact the same way in all situations. In different situations, different communication traits will surface.

If you want to be a successful leader who has unlimited career potential in higher education, it’s important to work on your responsive communication skills so that they become your dominant go-to communication strategy.

Here are three ways you can build your responsive communication effectiveness:

1. Make Sure You Understand What Was Said.

Don’t just focus on the words coming from others; consider the intention behind the words.  A simple yet effective strategy to use to improve understanding is to repeat back what you believe the person is saying to you. Repeating what others have said not only helps the person you’re interacting with feel heard, but it also buys you extra time to come up with a considered response to the situation at hand.

2. Ask Clarifying Questions.

Misunderstandings are far too common and far too destructive. If you want to be a stronger communicator, it’s up to you to make sure you understand the bigger picture. A great way to do this is to ask clarifying questions.

Confirm your assumptions about what you’re hearing rather than assume you understand. Your job is to always seek to understand, and that can be a considerable task since the people you interact with won’t always be forthcoming about their needs, wants, and intentions.

Seeking to understand a situation fully is especially important where strong emotions are involved.  When emotions are high, there is a higher risk of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Your goal in every interaction is to enhance mutual respect, and asking clarifying questions demonstrates you are intent on understanding and respecting others’ thoughts and needs.

3. Give Yourself Time to Respond Appropriately.

Never be afraid to put some space between the time you hear about something and the time you offer your response. Space and time are your allies.

If someone asks you a question or needs an answer from you that you’re not crystal-clear about just yet, then buy yourself some time by offering to get back to that person in a reasonable time period.  Reactive communicators offer answers on impulse, and they often regret those answers.  Responsive communicators offer answers only when they’ve given a matter careful consideration.

So, next time you’re stopped in the hallway by someone who makes a request of you that you’re not prepared to discuss, suggest you meet in 15 minutes so that you have time to process the request and thoughtfully consider your response.

Consistent Responsive Communication Skills Are a Must for Leaders in Higher Education

If you’ve developed some bad communication habits over the years, it’s time to become a consistent responsive communicator who is adept at handling even difficult interactions with care and intention.

The most successful leaders in higher education convey an exceptional Executive Presence. Being a responsive communicator is a critical component of conveying a refined, highly credible Executive Presence.

When you practice responsive communication consistently, you’ll find that you build better relationships with peers, staff, and executive team members.  You’ll also send your leadership career prospects in higher education soaring.  It’s a win-win for you and all those with whom you’ll interact going forward.


Would you like to enhance your responsive communication skills and boost your Executive Presence? Or, would you like to help members of your academic or administrative leadership team enhance their Executive Presence?  As a seasoned Higher Education Executive Coach, I can help you get a fresh perspective on your leadership aptitude and help you build a strong Executive Presence.  Let’s get the conversation started– contact me at [email protected].