As humans, engaging in communication is one of our most important activities. Successful communication has built empires, driven innovation, and made people fall in love, while unsuccessful communication has ruined relationships, sunk business deals, and stirred workplace conflict.
There are many elements to communicating successfully, but one of the most important is recognizing that people respond in different ways to specific situations or when interacting with a certain person or group of people. Everyone has a built-in preferred behavioral style for processing and acting on information. Some people react quickly, seemingly by instinct; others prefer to think through every scenario before responding.
That’s why, when engaging with others, we may be surprised by sudden disagreements or find ourselves mystified when others just don’t seem to “get” what we’re trying to say. That’s probably because they don’t get it. If you’re gushing numbers about a project and your coworker prefers to hear background stories first, there’s likely to be a disconnect.
Identifying your primary communication style—and understanding how it complements or differs from other styles—will take you a long way toward successful communication, whether you are speaking to a large group or engaging in a one-on-one conversation.
A Short Style History
The concept of communication styles has been around for a long time. In 1928, the American psychologist William Moulton Marston published Emotions of Normal People, a book in which he described four primary behavioral styles: dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance. From this book a world of different communication style families was born.
There is no right or wrong style. These are not IQ tests or evaluations of capability; they simply describe equally valid behavioral styles.
Another well-known model was created in the 1960s by industrial psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid, who describe four “social” styles: analytical, driving, amiable, and expressive.
Pathways applies similar models in “Understanding Your Communication Style,” a Level 2 project in five of the 11 paths. Members learn to recognize their own and others’ behavioral styles, which are described as direct (results-oriented, focused); initiating (sociable, persuasive); supportive (patient, cooperative); and analytical (precise, disciplined).
No matter what descriptors are used, there is no right or wrong style. These are not IQ tests or evaluations of capability; they simply describe four equally valid behavioral styles that identify how people take in and respond to information.
Styles in Action
People can switch or combine styles when it makes sense to do so, says Simon Bucknall, a speaker, executive coach, and member of Covent Garden Speakers in London, United Kingdom.
“When I first meet with a client, I’m absolutely in supportive mode,” Bucknall says. “There’s no point in me wading in and saying, ‘Hey, I have these ideas for you.’ How do I know what they need? It starts off with them asking me questions and talking about what they need.”
Communication styles may evolve once trust is established. “Then people might say, ‘What’s your advice? What do you think I should do?’ In that case, they’re looking for something very direct,” Bucknall notes.
Reading the descriptions of each style should give you a good indication of your preferred method. Yet it can be a real eye-opener when you’re first introduced to this concept. For example, soon after I began working on this article, I realized why I sometimes get frustrated in my weekly team meetings. I am a direct communicator who wants to get to the point, decide, and move on to the next topic. My boss is an analytical communicator who likes to take lots of notes and track our progress on a spreadsheet.
In my personal life, I am learning to mesh my direct style with that of family members who are initiating communicators and like to tell stories and share their feelings.
How Styles Complement and Conflict
As important as it is to know yourself, it’s equally important to think about how your style meshes with others’.
“It’s about being sensitive to the other person’s energy and matching that,” Bucknall says. He also recommends evaluating the actual words someone uses when they speak. Language can be revealing.
When you hear words like “tools,” “strategies,” or a comment like, “tell me about this vendor,” you’re getting a peek into how that person tends to process details.
“Communicating doesn’t have to be a competition or a conflict. Honesty is important, but so is communicating in a way that your message gets heard.”—Kristen Hamling, Ph.D.
“We should be nurturing of all the styles, then fitting them to the context and the point we’re trying to make,” says Kristen Hamling, Ph.D., of Whanganui, New Zealand, a professional psychologist, facilitator, coach, and former Toastmaster. “Be led by the context first, then by what you’re trying to achieve. Both sides want to be heard.”
Astute communicators recognize rising conflicts and know when and how to defuse them, Hamling adds. “You have to lean into having a courageous conversation. If you think the other person might get defensive, then you want to think about what their style is, and how to alter your style, so those defenses don’t deploy as much,” she explains.
It’s essential to remain civil and truthful, but you don’t have to completely surrender your points. “It’s important to remember that communicating doesn’t have to be a competition or a conflict. Of course, honesty is important, but so is communicating in a way that your message gets heard,” Hamling says.
Flexing Your Style
It’s also important to maintain flexibility in your communication styles. Experts like Hamling advise thinking about the end goal of your conversation or communication, then practicing your skills in whichever style seems to best fit the situation. If you feel you’re having trouble connecting with someone or getting your point across, it’s probably time to try a different style.
Bucknall offers a tip for those interested in trying on different styles at work. Pay attention to how you communicate in other aspects of your life, and think about how you might be able to bring some of that into the workplace, he says.
“Whether it’s as a parent, a child, a brother, or a spouse, we show these different sides or styles all the time,” he says. “We behave differently with a spouse than we do with a taxi driver. There are all sorts of useful clues we can get from paying attention to how we behave in everyday life intuitively.”
Bucknall says his preferred communication style is initiating—lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm—but that muscle has grown over the years because of all the types of speaking he does. For example, when he speaks to high school students, he’s learned that passive or analytical communication styles aren’t as successful with young people who have lots of energy and typically short attention spans.
“If I start just writing stuff on the board and going through things in a dry, analytical way, they’re just going to start chucking stuff at me,” he says. “Communication styles tend to get strengthened or wither a little depending on the kind of role one has to play.”
The challenges around meshing communication styles have grown more complicated in the work-from-home era, when face-to-face meetings have been replaced by emails, dashed-off Slack or Teams messages, or Zoom gatherings.
Remote communication by its nature favors direct and analytical communicators, so leaders may need to think about creative ways to support other styles of communication—perhaps adding some social time at the beginning of the meeting for initiating communicators, or asking follow-up questions of supportive communicators and making sure they feel heard.
Being thoughtful about your primary style and well-practiced in switching to another style when necessary are effective ways to strengthen relationships and build trust, Bucknall says.
“Rapport matters in meetings, and rapport is built on common ground,” he says. “That common ground can be content-related, it can be energy-related, it can be situational, but looking for commonality is absolutely key.”
Editor’s Note: Watch how Patricia Calixte, a member of Words on Wings (WOW) Club in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, demonstrates four styles—direct, initiating, supportive, and analytical—in her Pathways speech by acting out each persona.
Greg Glasgow is a Denver-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Toastmaster magazine.
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