“I realize I have the SAME communication style with everyone I talk to!”

This is the insight one of my clients had last week. He spent the week after our first conversation just noticing how he communicated with those around him. He had been aware that he had a direct style all along but he became much more aware that that was the only approach he took.

Most importantly he realized that having this one consistent style was undermining his ability to be successful. Not everyone responded favorably to his style. Some seemed to appreciate the directness, others got defensive and still others shut down.

He’s a smart guy. Intellectually he understands that he needs to adjust his communication from one situation to another, but he wasn’t doing it.

This happens all of the time, right? We know something but we still don’t do it. And as Lao Tzu said, “To know and not do is to not know.”

We all know that doesn’t cut it when it comes to leading people; so, here are 3 ways to become a communication genius.

Steps to Becoming a Communication Genius:

1. Recognize Your Own Style Preference:

What is your most common or comfortable style of communicating?

  • Direct or Indirect
  • Relational or Task oriented
  • Conceptual or Detailed
  • Independent or Collaborative
  • Verbose or Concise
  • Quick to Respond or Responds after Reflection

You do not need an assessment to do this, although people often use DiSC, MBTI or others to help them get more clear. In lieu of that, simply reflect on your tendencies or ask a friend or trusted colleague how they would describe your style. You can also spend a week in self observation – noting at the end of the day what styles of communication you used, and what tends to be your default style. Tip: You learn quickly what your default style is when you are in a stressful situation because that’s what we tend to fall back on.

2. Understand Style Preferences of Others:

Pick a specific person to start with and notice what styles they tend to prefer. See the list above for examples.

You could take this even a step further by asking people what works for them. Great leaders don’t see the need to keep communication styles a secret. If you’re working closely with someone, especially if you keep running into problems communicating, a great strategy is to actually ask them what type of communication style works for them. This does two things:

a) It shows them how much you care and that you are invested in making the relationship better.

b) It allows them to take ownership of their style and realize their own part on the communication.

If you approach it right, you’ll get more buy in from the people you’re leading without losing any credibility or authority.

3. Shift Your Communication Accordingly

Learning how to shift your styles to bring out the best in those you lead is critical. But, how do you switch your style to meet the needs of the moment or the individual you are talking with?

Here are some strategies:

1. Test
Choose one person and test your approach.  Start shifting the way you talk. Change the way you initiate a conversation, ask questions, listen, describe a situation or make a request. See how they respond.

2. Go Platinum
The Golden Rule is self-serving (treat others as you would like them to treat you). The Platinum Rule, treat others the way THEY want to be treated, is what great leaders apply.  So, choose to check in personally with people who are more relational or get straight to the task at hand with those who want to bypass the niceties.

3. Ask Better Questions
If you are dealing with less direct people and those you want to draw out, asking often works better than telling. In addition avoid the “why?” question as it often makes people defensive. Instead ask,  “What made you decide to…” or “What led you to take x action?” The tone change from accusatory to genuinely curious is also key.

4. Engage
Engage others by framing your requests and suggestions in ways that will speak to what the other person/audience cares about.

5. Mirror their Pace
Adjust the speed and pace of your communication when talking. I once had a colleague from the South say “Heather I can’t think how fast you talk!” He was frustrated with my rapid-fire conversation and when I slowed the pace we had a more productive discussion.

Feeling like a used car salesman?

Some argue that we shouldn’t switch our style because we are then not being “authentic”. My take is that style switching does not change our values, our beliefs or our personality. It just changes the way we speak. Yes, it might be uncomfortable at first to approach something differently than usual but that doesn’t mean you are being inauthentic.

For example if I switch from asking a close-ended question “Do you have a question?” to an open ended question “What questions do you have?” it doesn’t change anything but my outcome. I am much more likely to get a response when I use a statement that assumes there are questions (rather than asking if there is one) and asks which question we are going to start with.

The more common “Do you have any questions?” Is often marked by silence no matter if it is asked of an engaged crowd or a reticent one. Try asking “What questions do you have?” the next time you want to check for understanding and see what happens.

Why do I have to be the one to switch?

Some people get frustrated that they have to put all this effort into thinking about the other person they are communicating with, understanding their style and then modifying their own style in the communication.

My invitation is always that if you like the results you are getting, keep doing what you are doing. However, if the results are not what you had hoped or you think you might get better results with a more varied approach, I invite you to try a few style switching strategies.

These strategies and the ability to style switch are key to leadership success no matter your business culture. They become absolutely critical when you’re working in a global environment and the range of communication styles is even broader.