What is the Impact of Your Communication Style on Others?
Have you ever been around people who say whatever they think without any consideration for the appropriateness of their remarks? Perhaps you finally decided to approach them about their lack of tact, but received the response: “That’s just the way I am. People need to get used to me.”
Contrary to what most people think, communication style is not exclusively determined by personality. It is also affected by the choices we have learned to make by watching others, trial and error attempts, parental influence and a variety of life experiences. Communication style is a choice. For example, we choose words, how loudly we speak, timing of the conversation and the strategies we use to influence others. These choices affect whether or not people hear our point or are distracted by our behavior. When we make the wrong communication choices, people have two thoughts:
- “Why is this person acting this way?”
- “Why is this person treating me this way?”
If our improper communication style becomes the listener’s focus, the point we are trying to make is ignored.
Unfortunately we are not always conscious of the choices we are making. We have all had conversations in which our emotions dictated our behavior. Also, we are often focused on our intent behind the message and fail to monitor how we are delivering that message. For example, during your last conversation with someone, were you aware of what your facial expression was saying? Much of our communication behavior is difficult to self-monitor. Most of our communication choices have become habit. We are not thinking of how we are being perceived, but instead are communicating on impulse. We are not thinking about the listener’s opinions, only about what opinions we feel compelled to state. Therefore, learning the four communication styles and the positive and negative impacts of these style choices on others is critical to:
- the clarity of our communication;
- the quality of the connection we have with others;
- our credibility and;
- the potency of our influential messages.
Each style can have both positive and negative impact depending on how the style is used and in what situation you use it. For example, it is most effective to be open with others in most situations, but there are times when you may possess confidential information that cannot be divulged. Obviously if you were to reveal what you know, trust would be violated with the people whose secret you were supposed to keep. Trust is a critical factor in making decisions about how to communicate with others. Think of someone whom you do not trust. Your communication with that person is limited, guarded and skeptical. Trust changes everything in relationships. This is the main reason why making effective communication behavioral choices are so important. When people are focusing on how poorly they are being treated in an interaction, they do not accept the point being made – even if that point provides the solution to every problem on the planet! Why trust someone’s idea when you do not trust that person to communicate clearly and respectfully with you?
Open style communicators use trust as a guide for their choices. Ask yourself: “Will my actions, my style and my words improve or maintain trust?” If your answer is yes, then you most likely have chosen your approach carefully and will be communicating in a way that is clear, respectful and influential. In stressful situations, however, we often fail to ask this question and say whatever is on our minds, justifying our lapse in tact with the excuse that a lack of time prevented us from stopping to think about our impact on others.
An open style communicator also understands that it is the listener who determines the success of the interaction. The point of view of everyone in the conversation is considered. Paraphrase is used to clarify, empathize and keep the conversation focused on the real issue. Information is shared with appropriate relevance, detail and self-disclosure. “No” is said tactfully, yet assertively. Knowledge is shared freely without worrying about how ownership of that knowledge protects one’s public image or status.
However, there are times when our communication style should be more closed. Have you ever walked out of a meeting regretting that you said everything you were thinking and feeling without filters? That was a situation in which sitting back and analyzing what people were saying and then deciding how to respond would have been the better choice. But this closed communication style can be used to the extreme causing listener frustration. Sometimes the time needed to analyze all of the information and provide an answer takes longer than people expected or longer than the deadline allows. The subsequent explanation of that answer will be very detailed: starting with background information, then describing all facets of the problem, then revealing potential sources of those problems, then stating several solutions one-by-one until we have eliminated the ones that will not work and then describing in detail how to implement the solution that will work. Have you ever sat through one of those presentations? How much of all that detail did you absorb? Talk about TMI! This style is close to my heart, however, because the best example I have experienced of this style is my amazing mechanical engineer father. As I write this commentary, today is his 101st birthday. Yes, you read that right – one hundred and one years old – with a mind that is just as sharp and analytical as it ever was. People sometimes think that it is his age that prompts his long explanations, but I assure you it is his detail-oriented thinking process that drives the beginning-to-end-of-the-story approach. We tend to communicate the way we think. For those of us who have these detail-oriented tendencies, we need to understand that not everyone has either the patience or the desire to grasp everything we are presenting. We need to learn to edit. Once we do this, it will be easier for us to focus on the most important information, make decisions faster, speak up more quickly and ensure our opinions are being heard and considered. Remember: too much detail buries your point.
In a crisis situation brevity is critical. We must be decisive, concise yet descriptive, calm and focused on action. Communication choices that distract people from this action could have disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, people who use this style incorrectly believe that the crisis justifies using any type of behavior that incites action, including intimidation. However, others often react with resistance to the power play. The last time someone said to you: “You have to…” how did you react? A person who uses this style to the extreme has a clear picture in mind of how the world ought to be and how people in the world ought to act. They will demand that their methods be adopted, unfortunately without clearly describing those methods. After all, the picture is completely clear to them, anyone with a brain should be able to figure it out. And they will make this statement about people publicly. Bluntness is mistaken for openness. Listening to others’ opinions is considered a waste of time. These tactics may work in the short term, but long-term adversely affect credibility. No one respects a bully.
When people are uncertain of how to respond to inappropriate behaviors or unfamiliar situations, they often choose to hide their true opinions and feelings. For example, how would you respond to the question: “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Obviously we will consider the relationship with the questioner when determining the degree of openness in our answer out of concern for their feelings. There are many situations in which this degree of hiddenness is appropriate, such as customer service. Customers may be yelling and blaming us for their own mistakes. As customer service providers, we must remain calm and be conscious of our word choice (even though they are not conscious of theirs). On the inside we are furious and upset, but on the outside we are smiling, listening and negotiating a solution. This is appropriate use of the hidden communication style. Revealing our true feelings would only escalate the situation. But when this style is used to extreme, the full truth is not consistently revealed, causing problems with trust. Vague words like “as soon as possible” are used leading everyone to their own conclusions of what that means. People may go so far as to agree to an action and then do something completely different when no one is looking. Of course I am not saying who does these things. You know “who” I mean… Did I mention that gossip is an inappropriate use of hidden style? These ineffective hidden style actions are not always chosen for devious purposes, however. Often they are chosen out of fear of disappointing people or appearing to be “the bad guy.” Either way, though, trust is at stake.
There is no doubt that being fully conscious of the communication choices we make requires a great deal of effort. Sometimes we feel too tired and emotionally spent to try. But our reputations are affected. If we choose not to put forth this effort and instead stay in the “This-is-the-way-I-am/Get-used-to-me” mindset, we are communicating to others that genuine connection with them is not worth the effort…that they are not worth our effort. Is that really the impact you want to have?
If you are interested in learning more about how your communication style impacts others, we invite you to review Kent State’s Enhancing Interpersonal Communication Skills program within the Certificate of Supervision and consider registering to attend.