How to manage different communication styles

by Oct 7, 2016

Don’t let different communication styles build barriers between you

Have you ever been in a situation and realized that even though you are speaking the same language as the person you are talking to, they clearly don’t understand you? Your communication styles are so different that you may as well be speaking two different dialects or even worse totally different languages. This could be with a boss, colleague or even a partner.

Miscommunication is the root cause of much needless stress in our lives.

Deborah Tannen the international language and linguistics expert and best-selling author suggests that most of us are indeed speaking different dialects, even though we may share a common language. These differences are rooted in gender, age, background and culture. There are a number of different communication styles, and when those patterns are not in sync between the receiver and communicator, significant problems usually follow. No where is it more evident than between men and women, but that is not to say that men can’t be indirect communicators or women direct.

Abbey is a Strategy Manager at a global communications company. She received a long email from her boss including a personal anecdote which she knew was meant to be allegorical because the closing line was:

“You are smart enough to understand what I’m telling you.”  Abbey’s response was “ Well.. no actually… I have no clue what you’re talking about“

What was clear was that Abby and her boss had two different communication styles.

Read: Duet vs Duel – a communication manifesto

Types of communication styles

Being adaptable with your communication style is key

Being adaptable with your communication style is key

We all believe we are saying exactly what we mean and pride ourselves on our clear communication styles. But this is not the case especially when we’re talking to someone who has a different style from out own.

Understanding your own communication style

Answer these basic questions to get a sense of your own own communication style:

• Do you prefer to listen and speak up when you hear something you don’t agree with?
• Is your approach collaborative or decisive? How many people are involved in making decisions?
• Do you prefer a matrix or hierarchical organization where levels of authority are clearly defined?

Here are two main type of communication style

1.  Competitive versus Affiliative

Those of us that favour a more affiliative style of communicating, and show a collaborative and consultative approach, prefer bringing people together to solve problems and share information. At the other end of the scale there are those who are more oriented toward control, authority, competition, and assertiveness. Their communication style tends to facilitate the achievement of those goals. Here the style will be direct and more powerful. Input from others will be for information seeking purposes but the decision will be made usually by one person.


2. Direct versus Indirect


This is one area of significant difference in communication styles.  One person might say:
“Let’s stop midway for coffee in a three hour training session. People  struggle to concentrate.”
A more indirect communicator might say:
“It would be really nice if we could stop for coffee – I think people are getting tired”

We all use both direct and indirect forms of communication at different times, but most people show a preference of one style over the other. Each style has benefits and downsides. The direct communicator will communicate more clearly, but may risk offending the receiver with a blunt message. With indirect communication there is less risk of offence, but very often the message is less clear and the chance of miscommunication becomes greater. Tension created by different styles is very common, with frustration mounting on the side of the direct communicator and offence being taken by the indirect communicator.

Managing different communication styles:

Relationships based on different communication styles are not necessary doomed for failure or difficulties, but they do require managing.

#1 Develop an awareness of your own style

Understanding that there are differences in communication is a huge part of overcoming the problem. Ask a person what their communication style is as well as their communication preferences. Joelle told her boss ”I’m an introvert, so I need time and space to process information. I am not disengaging. I like to prepare for meetings and not take calls on the fly”

# 2 Adapt

Communication styles

Opening lines of communication is the best step

If you think communication styles are at the root of relationship difficulties adapt your style so that person hears you. That is the point of communication. If you continue as you are, tension will only increase.

The indirect communicator will retreat and the direct communicator will advance, resulting in stale mate. Indirect communication can be as problematic particularly if it morphs into passive aggression. Here messages could be communicated by nonverbal communication including body language and facial expressions. The lack of concrete resolution can lead to long term relationship issues.

Read: How to tackle a difficult conversation

Marina had a problem with her colleague taking her calls on speaker phone. Her request ”Wouldn’t you rather take your conference calls in the meeting room”  met a resounding “No, I’m fine here, thanks!” 

Unless the direct communicator conveys the message with empathy, they are going to cause problems. Melanie learned that saying “When you are late for my meetings it means all my other appointments are pushed back”  got better results rather than “It’s so annoying when you are always late for meetings”

Understanding that all communication styles have to be adapted to the listener are key to constructive relationships.  Start experimenting with your communication style and then  monitor the results.


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