1.5 What's Your Communication Style

Everyone has a communication style — a characteristic mix of behaviours that typifies how they approach interpersonal communication. In this chapter, we look at what constitutes a communication style and encourage you to ask yourself — what’s my style?

a. Theme and variations

Picture a group of people, all of whom have the skills and wisdom outlined in this Guide.

Will they be a bunch of clones? Hardly.

They will differ widely along many different dimensions. They will have different personalities, different views of the world, different jobs, different approaches to life, and so forth. You get the picture.

They will also have different interpersonal communication styles, that is, they will use the skills and wisdom of effective conversation differently.

Most people have mixed styles. Some of the things they do add value to conversations. Other things they do stand in the way of effective communication. Take George. He has both Explainer/Teller and Understander skills, but for whatever reason he tends to specialise in the Understander role. This is his style.

Styles, like many other things in life, can have both an ‘up’ side and a ‘down’ side. For George, the downside is found in remarks made by those who interact with him a lot. They say that George is a bit ‘passive’, that he is a ‘nice person’ but not very interesting, and that he seldom ‘speaks his mind’. The upside is found in a different set of remarks: "George is a good listener," or, "George is more than a listener. When I have a problem I like to talk it out with him." "George is one of the few people who takes time to understand me."

Your attitudes and values are not a separate package from your communication style. They permeate your style. They give it character and colour – for better or for worse.

You have an overall style, one, which is most characteristic of you. This can be called ‘theme’. However, since this style may vary from setting to setting, there are ‘variations’. ‘Theme and variations’, then is one way of looking at your style. Here are some examples:

You may be an excellent listener as a parent but not so good at listening when dealing with your colleagues at work.

You might talk easily about yourself to your buddies over a beer, but find it difficult to be open with your wife.

You might find yourself quite assertive with your friends over coffee, but much more contained when talking about household matters with your husband.

But even in these variations, the theme of your overall style persists. If you are not a ‘good listener’, period, then this deficit will probably appear in all the variations of your style. All that follows should be seen in terms of both ‘themes’, and ‘variations’.

The best way to find out about your own communication style is to take the Talk Test. This free web-based resource enables you to conduct a survey among a selection of friends, family and work colleagues to find out what they think about you as a communicator.

b. What’s your Conversation Manager style?

How effectively do you manage your conversations? For example, how much effort do you put into making sure your conversations are two-way? This is an important dimension of style.

"Eric hogs conversations. It's hard to get a word in edgewise. Even when I do manage to barge in, he doesn't listen. I tend to avoid him."

"Jimmy and I like to ‘mix it up’ when we talk. We both have strong opinions, but, strange to say, we both get a good hearing. At least, I think so."

How well do you promote mutual respect? The level of respect that you characteristically show others in conversations is another important aspect of your Conversation Manager style.

"Rula sometimes makes fun of the things I say. She's rather good-natured about it, but it still hurts or at least it's annoying. She also has a problem keeping secrets, so I'm often wary of being too open with her."

"Alan is good at ‘tough love’. He's gentle with me when I'm having a bad time. But he doesn't let me get away with things either. When I'm being whiny and self-centred, he picks me up on it."

To what degree do you recognise and honour the conversational rights of others? How assertive are you in promoting your own rights? Both are identifiable aspects of your Conversation Manager style.

"Kaitlin tends to barge straight in and start a conversation without considering whether it's a good time for me to talk. When this happens, I feel under terrible pressure because I don't want to be rude. But because I've got other things on my mind, I find it hard to pay attention to her."

"Ruby is very considerate. For instance, when she calls, she makes sure I'm free to talk. If I don't feel like talking, she doesn't mind. I've learned to return the favour. Not just to her, but to everyone I call."

How well do you exercise emotional control? Exercising emotional control, together with the willingness to express feelings and emotions appropriately in conversations, is an important part of your Conversation Manager style.

"Jude is a nice guy, but very touchy. It's so easy to offend him. You have to tiptoe around. I like him, but I don't always feel comfortable around him. I have to watch what I say too much."

"Vernon has a kind of calmness about him. I find it very easy to talk to him. Don't get me wrong. He has some strong ideas and he's certainly no pushover. He's got a broad range. He laughs. He's serious. At times he's on edge. But he doesn't push himself in your face."

How enthusiastically do you promote win-win conversations? How easily do you slip into a competitive approach?

"Donnie plays a lot of games with his friends. He's always needling. He never lets things get out of hand, but he goes up to the edge. ‘Edge’ is a good word. I'm ‘on edge’ with him. I know that in lots of different ways he's going to let me know that he's better than I am."

"Conversations with Nick are nearly always worthwhile. They get somewhere useful. They’re productive — for both of us.”

Inevitably, your Conversation Manager style is conditioned by your social competence, including your ability to ‘read’ the dynamics of social situations, your ability to respond creatively to a communication opportunity once you have assessed its social dynamics, and the integrity and courage you display in communicating in difficult situations.

“Christine always seems to be putting her foot in it. She just doesn’t seem to notice what’s going on around her, and as a result, conversations with her often have an uncomfortable atmosphere, a sense of impending doom.”

“Peter’s brilliant at saying the things that need to be said, but which most people are frightened to bring up. Sometimes, it backfires, but usually Peter’s courage pays off in the form of exhilarating conversations.”

c. What’s your Explainer/Teller style?

What are you like as a communicator when in the Explainer/Teller role? Here are the kinds of things people say when they’re asked to describe the Explainer/Teller styles of their friends, associates, and acquaintances.

As you read these descriptions, ask yourself what people might say about you.

"John tends to ramble when he's explaining things, and I find myself switching off after a few minutes."

"Caroline finds it easy to speak her mind, so I usually know where I stand with her. She tells me how she feels about things, but she does so in a nice way. This makes it easy for me to know how to relate to her."

"Tony loves to chat about little things. He's good at small talk. But the moment we have to sort out a problem between us, he hems and haws or, even worse, flies off the handle. I'm almost afraid to get into a serious discussion with him."

"Richard is a good manager. I come away from discussions with him with a very clear idea of what I have to accomplish. He doesn't shove things down your throat. There is always room for negotiation. Mind you, he tells you what's negotiable and what's not."

What are you like in the Explainer/Teller role? What are the themes of your Explainer/Teller style? How do you vary these themes in different situations? How would you like to be seen by others?

d. What’s your Understander style?

Your Understander style consists of the characteristic ways you listen to, and communicate understanding to, other people when they are in the Explainer/Teller role. Your style centres round the way you use, or fail to use, the Understander skills outlined in The Guide.

Here are some samples of the things people might say about their friends as Understanders:

"Mary's easy to talk to because she always seems interested in what I'm saying. We just seem to connect most of the time."

"Kate doesn't give me enough space. She's always so impatient. In the end, I don't even bother to try and get my point across. She's nothing like Val, who listens very well and then asks me intelligent questions. I never feel pushed, challenged sometimes, but not pushed. I love talking with her."

"Errol always appears to listen, but I'm not sure if he's really taking in what I say. He rarely says anything back to me that shows he understands the point I'm making. It can be like talking to a brick wall."

"When Marcus asks questions, it's obvious that he has been listening to what I have been saying. They're thoughtful questions. He builds on the things I say. We work really well together."

"Reggie can be difficult to talk to because he's not very open-minded. No matter what I say, I get the impression he's already made up his mind. And he gives advice at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, I don't think Isaac has ever given me advice. How can I put it? … We solve problems together."

Again, your Understander style may have a theme and a number of variations. You come across differently in different situations. At home you take pains to understand the concerns of your spouse and children. At work, however, you have more of an edge and this can cause problems in your role as a manager.

e. Your overall style — the total package

Of course, your wider style is made up of your characteristic ways of communicating in all three roles. It also relates to your ability to move into and out of each of these roles according to the demands of any given conversation.

For instance, Larry stays almost exclusively in the Understander role when he is with other people. One of his friends, Deborah, has this to say about his style:

"Larry is a very good listener. He's a great person to talk to when you are trying to sort out a problem. His sincerity comes through just about every word and gesture. But he shares practically nothing about himself. Sometimes I feel he's my sounding board or even my counsellor, instead of my friend."

How willing are you to keep an open mind as the conversation progresses?

“No matter what I say to her, it’s like talking to a brick wall. She’s just not interested in changing her mind.”

“She has strong views of her own, but she’s always willing to consider an alternative point of view.”

On the other hand, Celine, although skilled in both roles, prefers to be in the Explainer/Teller role most of the time. She tells excellent stories; she gets her point of view across clearly and forcefully; she delivers messages quite well. Christopher has this to say about Celine's communication style:

"I must say that she's very interesting. She knows so much about so many different topics. It’s also clear that she knows who she is and where she's going. And she certainly can be very persuasive. I enjoy being with her, but not too often and not for too long. She's just too much. Or too intense."

Another of Celine's friends has a view with more of an edge to it:

"Celine doesn't so much talk with you as preach at you. She doesn't have points of view. She has The Truth. When she talks, it seems that she's not looking for any kind of response. I find myself getting irritated and wanting to interrupt her all the time."

Contrast Larry and Celine with Michael, who not only has the skills of both Explainer/Teller and Understander but also knows how to mix them well. This is the impact he has on Robert:

"I enjoy being with Michael. I've never said this to him, but he brings out the best in me. There is so much give-and-take in our conversations. And there is such variety, too. We can just mess around. We can be serious. We can talk about his problems or mine. We can even talk about how we relate to each other. Sometimes I wonder what kind of communicator I am, but when I'm with Michael, it all seems so easy."

You might find parts of yourself in some of these descriptions. One way to improve your communication reputation is to note what it is about other people's communication style that strikes you as negative. And then ask yourself the question: "Do I sometimes behave like that?" Also note what it is about other people that strikes you as positive and helpful. Then ask yourself: "To what degree am I like that? What would I have to do to develop that kind of upbeat style?"

Your overall style, together with its variations, gives the complete picture of you as a communicator. Minor variations are not usually an issue. However, if your communication style changes radically from setting to setting, you may well ask yourself: "What's going on here? Who am I? Why does my style differ so much from person to person?"

Of course, your full style shows up, not in the pages of a book, but in practice, what you actually do in day-to-day conversational settings.

f. Style breeds reputation

Your style, as experienced by others, gives rise to your communication reputation. Because of variations in your style, there will also be variations in your reputation. Cliff thinks that you are a great story Explainer/Teller, while Mimi finds your stories tedious.

Your reputation is conditioned by other people’s perceptions of your communication behaviour. Everyone has his or her own particular reputation as a communicator - in terms of both themes and variations - built up over the years.

Do you know what your reputation is? It may be exactly what you think it is or it may be different. You may think of yourself as someone who gets his or her points across clearly, for example, when in reality other people find you difficult to understand. You may think you listen well, while others think they don't get a good hearing from you.

Your reputation is very important because it can significantly influence the way other people relate to you. For instance, if you have a reputation for criticising too readily, people may be reluctant to ask for your help. After all, who likes being told off when all they want to do is share a problem? On the other hand, if people think of you as someone who is interested in understanding their points of view, they'll be far more willing to be open with you.

Everyone is different

Does everyone play by the rules outlined in The Guide? And, if they don't, are they bad people? "No" to both questions. In the real world there are an infinite number of styles. Some groups and some individual communicators play by their own rules. They have a style of their own. If you are not used to their rules, you can be easily put off.

Po Bronson provides an example of this in a brief article on how some professionals in Silicon Valley talk to each other, (Wall Street Journal). Many of the computer-age professionals and specialists he met seemed, at first glance, to attack people who had new or different ideas. They seemed to be totally unaccepting, their behaviour was contrary to most of the stuff written here. A friend of Bronson’s even complained about the treatment he had received at their hands. Their style, Bronson says, is in reality, ‘interrogative’.

Bronson gives a different slant to the Silicon Valley style. "Their interrogation style was just how people talk out there. People love Socratic interplay, improving ideas through active conflict. Arguing is fun. Arguing is the whetstone that sharpens the high-tech brain. Playing devil's advocate and trying to talk someone out of his idea is a role-playing form of friendship. Interrogating my friend was their way of showing keen interest."

Of course, these people did not make any effort to clue in Bronson's friend on the rules. Then again, he was on their turf.

Some people just seem to like their conversations to be more ‘rough and tumble’. Perhaps you are not yet ready for that kind of friendship. Perhaps you are. If there is nothing malicious in the ‘rough-and-tumble’ communicator, then why not? Other people prefer the other extreme. Let's put it a different way. Just as there are many different social cultures, so are there many different communication cultures. The assumption here is this: Most of what's written in this book can be - even needs to be - adapted to these different cultures.

Anyway, need we say that none of us is perfect as a communicator? Most of us are good at some of the skills, not as good at others. We also vary in terms of consistency. We have good days and bad. The package outlined in The Guide is an ideal. All of us can become better. All of us can become more consistent. If we want to.

In the end, you have choices. You can choose to be skilled or mediocre. You can choose to use the skills you have, or let them lie fallow. Within limits, you can choose the style you want. Changing styles can be a lot of work. So, if you decide to try, know why you're doing it. After all is said and done, your communication style needs to be you, not an imitation.

Go Back To Section Menu

[[[|Go Back To Topics]]]

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License