Everyone has their own communication style and research suggests these develop before around age 5 and are very difficult to change. Because effective communication is so important, we must learn to recognize different communication styles in those around us and adapt our own approaches so we can reach and connect with others who do not share our style.
A number of decades ago, Dr. William Marston of Columbia University studied "normal" behavior in people. He developed a method of linking behaviors with communication styles, and these four broad styles known as DISC have proven so useful they have stood the test of time and are still with us today. DISC is an acronym for Dominance, Influence, Compliance and Steadiness.
Now of course no one falls into one of these categories all the time. And, there are other ways of categorizing personality and ideal career paths (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator uses broad headings such as introvert/extrovert and thinking/feeling. The Strong Interest Inventory or SII and the Campbell Interest and Skills or CISS also come to mind.) All of these approaches are general tools and not meant to be interpreted too literally. Human thought and interaction is much too complex for such an oversimplification. Sometimes we are active or passive in favorable or antagonistic environments. Sometimes we just have an off day. But, as you'll see below, a lot of the time we can recognize someone's basic style with a little observation of their behavior. Then, knowing something about what they like, we can tailor our approach to better communicate with that person while also recognizing what we need to work on in ourselves.
Let's begin by putting some definition and traits to each style in DISC (credit to E. Patricia Birsner for summarizing Marston's work):
High Dominance Style - High D
Behaviors: Self starters, they thrive on challenge, conflict and competition. They are direct, positive and blunt to the point of being seen as a little rude. They can cope with chaos and are "change agents". They like to be center stage and fight hard for their beliefs but can accept defeat without hard feelings (though they often wonder why others are still angry after the dust clears). They prefer variety, the unusual, and adventure. Typically, they are top executives. They will lose interest if their jobs become routine and demand a lot of themselves and others. But when they find the challenge they need, they'll stay.
How to recognize them: They typically run late and interrupt you to take phone calls, read texts and emails while saying "Go ahead, I'm listening". There are stacks of papers sitting around on their desks (filing is boring) and they may not care too much about their physical appearance (just too busy to look their best!).
How to communicate with them: They want you to be brief, so get to the point quickly! Be firm and give them the executive summary (elevator pitch). Level with them, bottom line it for them. Hit them hard but don't argue with them. They'll act on impulse and leave the details to someone else, so get to the point. In short, communicate them in the same manner they project.
High Influence Style - High I
Behaviors: Outgoing, persuasive, gregarious, they strive to persuade others and make their opinions and beliefs prevail. Very comfortable in one-on-one situations they are frequently described as "natural salespersons". They are poised and meet strangers easily in the sales or marketing roles they often hold. They may be name droppers who dress to the nines and seek prestige and personal recognition. They may be incurably optimistic which can get them into trouble when they overestimate the abilities and intentions of others.
How to recognize them: Their ego is all over their office. You are apt to see lots of photos of them getting awards, plaques, trophies, certificates, etc. They will be friendly, outgoing, enthusiastic and their dress is a good clue. Above all, their ego and sense of self will be obvious in the way they use the word "I" - "I did this, I did that." If you don't believe how wonderful they or their company is, you can just ask them!
How to communicate with them: They like the special, the novel, the new, the exciting. Let them talk about themselves, about what they've been doing. Don't attempt to dominate the conversation (since you couldn't anyway - they will likely interrupt you and for sure don't try one upmanship with them!). Above all, they want recognition so show them how you can help them achieve their goals. Compliment them sincerely on their office, their accomplishments, their department, whatever. Use a broad brush when describing what you need or have accomplished - details are boring to High I's.
High Steadiness Style - High S
Behaviors: Amiable, easygoing, relaxed, they may seem even-tempered, low-key or unobtrusive. They dislike being singled out in a crowd and tend to be complacent, lenient, but emotionally mature. They work at friendship and probably have the same friends they have had for years. They are masters at concealing their feelings for others and may hold grudges. The saying "I don't get mad, I get even" is true for the High S. They dislike change to the point of quietly resisting the change process to slow things down. They tend to be very possessive and develop strong attachments to things, family, coworkers and their departments.
How to recognize them: They will often refer to their company or work group as "we" or "our". They will be very low key dressing conservatively and neatly. Offices will be neat and there won't be more than a few papers on their desks. The pictures in their office will be of their possessions - their families, their houses, boats, cars, summer cottages and so on. Their possessiveness shows up in nameplates on both their doors and desks and they may have labeled everything from the tape dispenser to the potted plants. They appear easygoing but are actually reserved. They are typically middle managers because they don't consider the pressured, upper executive, life style desirable. The High S style is the most difficult to identify because they are so good at hiding their true feelings. If you can't place them as a high D, I or C, they are probably an S.
How to communicate with them: Don't touch anything in their offices or move things around. They might resent it. You must win them as friends and then sell your ideas in a low-key, non-dramatic way. Do not suggest unnecessary change or turnarounds as these are threatening to them. They expect you to take a sincere and personal interest in them.
High Compliance Style - High C
Behaviors: They are orderly, precise and attentive to detail tending to follow traditional procedures and established systems. They are reserved, conservative, adaptable and diplomatic preferring to adapt to situations and compromise to avoid trouble. They go by the book and document everything. When they are convinced by fact and detail, they make up their mind and may be rigid should unexpected change come later. They have high personal standards and live up to them and expect others to do the same.
How to recognize them: Their offices are neat and orderly and the desk is clear. They will appear unhurried. Any pictures on the wall will likely be of things - landscapes, still lifes, abstracts, attractive photographs of bridges or buildings. They will be prepared for your visit having read everything you've sent them and will have detailed, precise questions they will ask you in a courteous and diplomatic way. They dress conservatively and are well groomed.
How to communicate with them: Be precise and technically correct - don't generalize. Answer all questions carefully and completely. Use facts, research and statistics. Their extreme caution makes them want quality, reliability and precedent. Tell them about the extreme research and preparation you did before bringing your idea or need to them.
If you don't recognize yourself in any of these styles, worry not! DISC personality tests and assessments are available online and you can easily use these to learn more about yourself. Most people have strengths in two of the four DISC quadrants. But, I'm betting that there is more than one individual in your office (or family or friend group) that you immediately thought of when reading the above descriptions. So, now you are armed with new information for improving relations with that person. Despite your own style, you can learn to approach them on their terms for a more successful outcome.
Here's another way to think of it. Throw away the Golden Rule. All our lives we've been taught "Treat other people the way you would like to be treated". But research shows all people don't want to be treated the way you want to be treated. Instead, substitute the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they like to be treated!
Yet another way to think of it is to use mirroring techniques. When you approach someone new, mirror their body language, vocal style and formality of attire (dress). Respect their personal space the way they respect yours (close talker, leaning back, standing posture, talking with their hands, etc.) Of course, avoid mimicking the person too obviously or the gig is up. The trick here is to be subtle. If the other person speaks loudly, you speak loudly. If her or she is a fast talker, you be a fast talker. If the man is wearing a suit jacket and tie, you wear yours. If the woman has her hair up in a tight bun, you wear yours the same way. Easy, huh? Just bland right in.
Listening attentively can make a powerful, positive impression on any style of communicator. Listening creates rapport, makes a good impression and aids communication. To be a good listener:
- paraphrase or repeat to summarize what has been said,
- ask thoughtful questions, and
- take notes.
Cultivate the skill of being artfully vague to diffuse tension. Begin by swallowing your pride and refusing to argue even if you think the other person's view is the stupidest thing you've ever heard. Let them vent for awhile. Then, look them straight in the eye and say "I've listened very carefully to what you've said to me and you know something? You may be right." Notice, you didn't say they were right or even that you agree with them. Here's another one. "I've listened very carefully to what you've said and I appreciate you explaining it very well to me. And I want you to know that is something I think about very intensely at times." See how that works?
Use everyone's favorite word - their name. High achievers use the name of the person with whom they are speaking at least once per conversation. More is better. If you have problems remembering names, use a mnemonic tool to help you such as saying the person's name three times rapidly when you first meet them or tying it to a personal item or thought that you will always remember (Val reminds me of Valentines Day which reminds me of my first kiss and so on.)
Pay three compliments per day. When you pay someone a sincere compliment it makes that person feel special. It only takes a few seconds and you know what they say: "What goes around comes around".
Be very careful with blindly approaching those with opposite styles of communication from yours. It is easy to accidentally make enemies and create friction when styles don't match! Once you recognize your own style, find it below to identify some problem behaviors your style may be causing for you.
Problem Behaviors and Solutions
High D: You are impatient and don't give others an opportunity to think and to assimilate. You tend to be impulsive, to blow up when things go wrong, but you get over your anger fast. (Bad combo with High S types who tend to brood and hold grudges!) You may fail to consult or share. You are probably a one-way communicator - you tell, not ask, and are a poor listener. You may not be sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, or you intimidate them. You may be too blunt.
High I: You are too global - and you may find detail difficult. You may act without thinking, be too optimistic and may be perceived as too talky and too superficial. You may not give other people an opportunity to respond. You like people and may trust too much. You probably give poor directions. You may not listen enough and may cut others off because they don't respond quickly or fill you need for recognition. You tend to "wing it", to go off on tangents and you may be too outgoing.
High S: You may be seen as too indirect, as lacking conviction, or as not forceful enough. You may spend too much time on tasks and lack a sense of urgency. You may be too slow to respond, too patient, and may spend too much time listening and not enough time asking or telling. You may be stubborn and clam up when pushed.
High C: You may talk too deliberately, concentrate too much on details and tend to get lost in the small picture. You want everything in exactly the right form which others perceive as picky. You may move too slowly and cautiously and prefer things written instead of verbal. You will ask (and ask) instead of tell. You may be too sensitive to possible slights yet be critical of the faults in others.
The solution to all these issues is educating yourself about other's styles and then practicing your ability to break through to them. You may not be able to change the core of how you communicate, but you can recognize the more abrasive traits and tone them down a bit.
The great news is: business needs all communications styles! A well rounded organization needs balance and productivity - High D types for their goal orientation and attention to the bottom line; High I for their people skills and ability to sell ideas and products; High S for their calmness and ability to work with almost anyone; and High C to get the details right and come up with the tough "what if" questions.
Unfortunately, many organizations are not balanced in communication styles because decision-makers far too often "clone" themselves by hiring people with the same style they have, because they have no problem talking with them.
Bottom line (did you see my High D style there?): learn to recognize the styles of others and practice reaching them on their terms.
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