Tools for Effective Communication: Third tool: Understanding Styles.

So far, we have discussed two tools designed to help you approach an important communication: setting a goal for the outcome and planning the communication before jumping into it. Perhaps most of us intuitively feel that the best communications seem easy and natural.  They happen almost automatically and so we don’t really think about what makes them work so easily. And yet, should we choose to take the time to evaluate why they work, they are “easy” for a specific reason or several reasons. If you have easy communication with another, it adds little value to “over-think it.”  If it is working, then there is frankly little reason to mess with it.  The series of postings on Tools for Communication are designed to help you evaluate the sources for communication challenges and to provide tools and approaches to help when communication with another seems more challenging.

The third communication tool is understanding the style of the person which whom you are communicating.  Several of our postings will be closely related to this overarching topic.  Today’s focus will be on the style with which the listener prefers to approach problems. Other posts will discuss even more deep-rooted style issues.  Fundamental to the next several postings in the underlying understanding that easy communication invariably happens as a result of being in “congruence” with the other person or persons involve. Congruence is a derivative of the term “congruent,” which the dictionary defines as “being in agreement or harmony,” or “being identical in form.” When I suggest that we should strive for congruence in our important or challenging communications, I am not saying that we should simply mimic what we hear from the other person, nor am I suggesting that we should parrot them, dress exactly like them, or scratch when they scratch.  What I am saying, however, is that even when one communicates in the same language – in our current case, English – communication unavoidably involves a series of word and metaphor choices and styles and approaches.

Each of us has deeply engrained preferences for word and metaphor choice, pace of communication, accompanying body language, non-verbal supplements to our communication (much more will be said about this in a later posting). Likewise, it is now well established that each of us has the hard-wired propensity connect with the other and on a very unconscious level to share similar responses to similar stimulus.  In fact recent research has revealed that many of the higher primates possess specialized neurons within their brains – mirror neurons – that react in response to connection with another individual.  It has been shown for example, that when one monkey sees another eating a nice piece of juicy fruit, the same parts of the brain react in the observing monkey as in the monkey actually eating the fruit. Thus, the physical reaction and brain areas stimulated are similar in each monkey.  While researchers have not yet isolated and identified mirror neurons in humans, deductively we see similar responses.  Think about it.  How often do you feel compelled to yawn when someone else yawns, as just one example?

As we drill down into this topic, lets start for today’s posting with looking at problem solving or decision-making styles.  Have you ever prepared what you thought was an excellent report or presentation and presented it to someone seemed “underwhelmed” by the work, even though the topic was important and a decision was required? If not, count yourself lucky! If so, read on!

While individuals are far too complex to be easily categorized in boxes and labels, there are many instruments out there that purport to do just that?  What is the utility of labeling someone?  What good does it do to know that someone is of a certain Meyer-Briggs “type” or a certain DiSC® type? For the average person, these tools as diagnostic instruments are of little value. Yet, as a non-diagnostic indicator of a person’s communication preferences they can be very useful.

For example, most people have some single or combined preference around approaching communications and making a decision or accomplishing a goal.  Regardless of the specific instrument used and its specific labels, people do have their preferences in the way they approach discussions. Let’s look at some of them. Several instruments tend to categorize people generally along the lines of the following four groupings: People who are decisive and want to jump quickly to the solution, sometimes called “drivers.”  Others love to explore the future as it could be and to reach solutions in light of a new approach or creative new solution.  We’ll call these people “creators” for our purposes. Others hold their relationship with others as the single most important aspect of their interactions with them.  These individuals need to “know” and trust the other individual.  They need to feel like they are connected first with the other person before moving forward to work with them and to approach a problem.  For our purposes we will call these people “empaths.”  Finally, some individuals place greater importance on the system and its “rules,” rather than on individual decision-making or creativity, regardless of the level of “connection” with the other. I call these people “systemizers.” They like to work with predictability, rules, and bounded variables. Naturally, these lines can be blurred and people are far too complex to fit neatly into a single category every time.

Further, people often gravitate to certain work and professions, which align with their styles.  Invariably, a room full of CEOs will have a high representation of “drivers” and “creators”  — people who can envision creative solutions and are not afraid to make the call to implement them.  A room full of accountants may have high representation of systemizers.  After all, while we value creative solutions to address new problems, we rarely value “creative accounting!” Counselors and customer service representatives will often have the predominate characteristics of an “empath.”  People whose jobs task them with often “thinking out of the box” or designing new features, products, or solutions have strong “creator” traits. The “creator” trait is often highly represented in jobs such as system designers, architects, futurists, and applied research.

You may ask, “So what does this me? How do I know about me, let alone the other person that you seek to influence?  The answer is that it is actually not that difficult to make educated guesses and to test them as you work with the other person.  Here are a few questions you can ask yourself and use to evaluate the other person:

  • Do you like read-aheads and short and to-the-point formal meetings with specific outcomes and very specific timeframes? Is the task the most important thing to address in your meetings? Are deadlines important and real? Do you keep your desk clear and touch things once? Do you feel uncomfortable wasting time on small talk when there is so much to be done?  When you call things as you see them – even if you are blunt – you know it is OK because it is “nothing personal?” It is likely you are a “driver.”
  • Are deadlines more of a general goal or suggested target? Do the stacks of paper tend to pile up while you explore options and ideas?  Do you lose read aheads in your office? Do you get excited and enthusiastic and like to spend time in meetings with others talking through the goals and possibilities? Do you see so much more that can be done as an aspect of solving this problem?  It is highly possible your predominant approach to problem solving is as a “creator.”
  • Are deadlines firm commitments to be met? Do you sometimes feel stressed if it looks like you might miss one? Is a deep and clear understanding of the parameters of the project important? Is a methodical approach and implementation plan with defined milestones and fixed outcomes important to you? Are governing guidelines and documents important?  It is likely that you have strong sytemizertraits.
  • Finally, o you care about how others feel and believe that it is important for you to get to know the others that you work with before focusing on tasks? Is it difficult for you to work with someone that you dislike or feel that you can’t trust? Is it important and just good manners for someone to share enough about themselves so that you have a feel for “who they are” and what they like? Are the social aspects of working with a team the most fulfilling part of the team interaction?  You may have strong empathtraits.

So why is it important to be aware of your own style and the style of another whom you seek to influence?  It can make all the difference.

If you want to influence a boss who is a strong driver, it is likely he or she will appreciate a read-ahead and a very organized, crisp and to-the-point presentation. He may like efficiency in terms of how you present information.  Thus, if you have an opportunity for a snappy pie chart versus a detailed table, so that he or she can quickly get a handle on the issue and make a decision, you may find your interaction goes better.  And, seriously, don’t take blunt criticism personally; the driver doesn’t tend to personalize. He or she may seem angry, but they get over it.

Likewise, if you need a decision from a strongly empathic person, taking the person the same snappy pie chart may be less effective than sharing with them the compelling personal impact or harm that occurs, if the problem is not addressed. Be prepared to start the meeting slowly and spend time in “small talk” so that the individual gains a sense of trust and knowledge about “who you are” as a person.

Likewise the systemizer may honestly appreciate the table with the underlying data, rather than “trusting” you with the high-level data that the pie chart reveals. Don’t expect a hasty decision.  The systemizer may have to mull things over, research, and ponder. A final decision may be scary to the systemizer because of its potential impact on the “system” and the possibility of inadvertently breaking “the rules.”

Finally, if you are meeting with the “creator” bring a spare copy of the read-ahead, because it is likely to have been misplaced.  Anticipate that the meeting may start late because the person may have another commitment running beyond the scheduled time.  Plan that your own meeting may take longer.  Be prepared to brainstorm and envision and be clear about deadlines for things you need.

This discussion is just the beginning on a series of topics designed to help you put together a number of ideas on how better to connect. You will find that many of the future discussions closely link.

If you are curious about your own style, I encourage you to write me and ask for to take my simple styles instrument. Like most other instruments it is not diagnostic, nor is it intended to be, but it may provide a useful start point in your journey towards communication styles self-awareness.


November 3, 2011


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