Communication Styles

Jonathan, the president of a mid-sized university, invited me to observe one of his advisory board meetings because he said he was "stumped by the team dynamics going on with this group." As I observed their meetings, I noticed that when a team member, Mike, spoke, no one seemed to pay attention. But a few minutes later in the meeting, when another team member, Kim, made the same point using different words and another example, everyone seemed to be engaged, agreeing to move forward with the idea. Every time Kim made a suggestion, the group would agree and build on what she said. Every time Mike made a suggestion, it was as if he had plopped the idea out there, and everyone dismissed it.

Jonathan told me that he had appointed Mike to this board because they worked together on another board and Mike had made significant contributions to that team. Why was this dynamic happening?

In short, it all comes down to adapting to preferred communication styles. Who do you know that is masterful in communicating with a variety of people?

People who are known for being outstanding communicators know how to say what other people need to hear in a way they can hear it. They know how to spot the different communication needs. They understand the different communication styles and why each one adds value to the whole effort. They behave in a way that says one communication style is not better or worse than another. In fact, we know successful businesses are led by CEOs from all the various communication styles.

Our preferred communication style determines how we will approach a meaningful conversation. Kim's communication style was very similar to most of the other board members. Mike's style, on the other hand, was 180 degrees away from that of the majority of the board members on Jonathan's advisory board.

This month we'll review the four Communication Styles and highlight what each style needs in a conversation.

In my work as an executive coach, I use assessments that show a person's preferred communication style, workplace motivators, emotional intelligence, and natural talent. These four individual assessments are the foundation for coaching, team development, and organizational structure design and also form the basis for the work I do with teams. In addition, these assessments help individuals to understand their own leadership style and method of building relationships with others. They are powerful because they raise awareness about both the individual and the team as a whole. This awareness enables communication to occur more intentionally and clearly. We begin by focusing on understanding preferred communication styles.

All of us have a preferred way of communicating and using our natural talents. Some people do not feel that they need to adapt their communication style in order to be successful. Other people, however, feel they need to adapt their natural preference in order to be accepted at work and in professional relationships. The assessment shows if a person is adapting to "fit in." All of us adapt at certain times, especially as we learn how to use our know-how about styles to communicate effectively. When someone is making a significant adaptation to how he or she normally behaves, it can be stressful and detrimental to long-term success.

In conversations some people prefer to answer questions that begin with the word what, focusing on the big-picture concept (D styles). Others prefer to answer questions that are focused on how and the step-by-step approach to doing something (S styles.) Still others would rather start with why and the rationale for taking action (C styles.) Your boss may prefer to make decisions during a conversation and gets an energy boost from doing so, (D style) whereas one of your peers may feel terribly uncomfortable making snap decisions and needs a few days to mull over the pros and cons before making the decision (S style.) One of your team members may need to verbalize ideas so she knows what she is thinking (I style,) while another prefers to think things out alone (C style.) How do you know someone's preferred communication style? By "people-reading," you will be able to identify an individual's communication preference. Understanding preferred communication is foundational to all conversations.  This month we are covering what you need to know to spot communication styles in conversations.

Predictable clusters of behaviors fit together and impact a person's approach to communication. For example, the statement "I am going to research before I make a recommendation" can mean very different things to different people. Take Carl, for instance. When Carl says, "I am going to research the options," he means he is going to find every possible option, do a comprehensive search, deeply explore and read about all the possibilities, create a pro-and-con list, and maybe even e-mail someone who has experienced each option to confirm his understanding (C style.) But to another person, let's call him Paul, this means he is going to find something (maybe a sign) that indicates that his idea has merit and that what his gut feeling is telling him is worth pursuing. When Paul finds one article that confirms his idea is a good one, he is confident in his decision and ready to move forward (D/I Style.) That is his "research." If Carl and Paul are talking to each other, they may find communication frustrating if they do not understand the range of style preferences.

Paul will think Carl bogs things down and takes too much time to do his work. Carl will think Paul is not trustworthy because he did not really research the way Carl does, and Carl believes Paul is just winging it most of the time. If Paul and Carl understand communication styles, they will play to the strengths of their styles and cover each other's blind spots. In other words, they may agree that Carl will spend three days coming up with the option he can find. Carl will share that with Paul so he has the big picture. Carl will also understand that Paul likely already knows his gut reaction, and he is looking at the data to see if he can move forward now with this idea. On the third day they can meet to discuss Carl's findings and then together in the meeting make a decision they can both live with. Because of Paul's preferred style, he will likely make connections with people and concepts that Carl would not naturally see. Paul will be able to sell the concept to others and get them engaged in bringing the idea alive. Until we have learned how to work with all the communication styles, we are most likely to build natural rapport with people whose communication style is most like our own.