Learn to Communicate with Different Styles

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

You say ‘puh-tay-toe’,
I say ‘poe-tah-tow’ —
let’s call the whole thing a train wreck!

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From: Listening to Babble

My co-worker (and sort of semi-boss) doesn’t know how to get to the point. When he starts talking, he has to give all the background, which is usually not relevant to his point – if he even has one! In the middle of it, he’ll think of something else and start talking about that.

His e-mails are just as bad – disorganized, rambling, and unclear. Since part of my job is to provide support services to him, I feel like I should understand what he wants. But it’s so difficult with his communication style. If you ask him to explain what he just said, he starts at the beginning and goes through the whole thing again, and it makes no more sense than the first time. I’ve just been guessing at what he probably means to say – with perhaps 75% accuracy. Should I ignore him, keep asking him to repeat himself, or keep guessing what he means?

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To: Listening

Actually, you aren’t.

Listening, that is. Listening requires attentiveness which leads to understanding. Being in the vicinity of words that you’re unable to translate to meaningful content doesn’t qualify as Effective Listening.

You correctly identified the difficulty as a “communication style.” He sees a concept from the beginning, so to get to his point, he goes through the entire topic. Think of a child who, when asked to say the last letter of the alphabet, replies “A-B-C-D…” and so on until they get to the end. The answer is correct, but takes waaaay too long for most listeners.

The pain you’re feeling is the universal assumption that everybody thinks alike. They do not. Just as you expect your colleague to be able to go straight to the point because you have that ability, so your colleague expects that you need to hear the entire story because that’s how he keeps everything in context.

Let’s establish some tactics to improve communication between a to-the-point communicator and a here’s-the-whole-story communicator.

The first is patience. For the whole-story communicator, it’s as if the point doesn’t even exist independent of the story. You’ve got to let them get to the point the only way they know how – down the long and winding pathway. You’re being given a guided tour of their thought process, and you can’t rush it. Your options are to go along for the ride or jump off the train. That said, once you’ve seen the scenery, you don’t have to take the whole ride again to enjoy the snapshots. The first time through the story, it would be rude to interrupt, but after that…

Clarify, and clarify again

First, the purpose of task-oriented communication is to deliver a message. If you don’t get the message, you must clarify. “Huh?” doesn’t work here, because that’ll just start another story. You’ve already said you’re developing the skill to guess what he probably means, so say it out loud, ending with, “Is that it?”

If you don’t get confirmation, he’ll start the story again. This time, you’re looking for places to understand. And since you’ve been polite through a complete telling of the story, this time, you’ll have to interrupt as needed to be certain you’re on the right track. Try to get acknowledgment of the end of the story. “So, the paperwork you need is…”

Remember the difference between open-ended questions (“tell me more”) and closed-ended questions (“yes” or “no”). If you ask an open-ended question, you invite the start of a new story. But a closed-ended question can move you toward an agreed conclusion.

Ask for a pre-conclusion to help you understand the story. “Just to help me keep track, what’s going to be the bottom line?” If he really knows his point and isn’t just thinking out loud, you may get a shortcut here. If that happens, promise to get to work on it and tell him you’re looking forward to hearing the rest of the story later in the break room.

One technique to move the story along is to repeat the last phrase you remember, as an invitation to start from that point instead of the beginning. Like asking the alphabet kid, “What comes after W-X-Y…?” It helps the speaker’s brain pick up the loose thread and continue.

When he loses focus and starts on a different story, ask “What about…” and keep him on the relevant topic. He’ll be just as easy to pull back as he was to distract.

In the end, you’ll summarize the key message. State the action that you’ll take and get agreement that you’ve correctly summarized. For anything important, use a follow-up e-mail.

The problem with communication is assuming that what is clear to you is just as clear in another person’s head. When communicating with different thinking and speaking styles, the message isn’t delivered until you’ve listened to and understood the message in the other person’s style. Really good communicators then back up their conclusions by repeating and getting agreement with the same message, re-stated in a different style to ensure mutual understanding.

Style differences are no excuse for poor communication. If you absolutely can’t understand a business communication, find a reliable translator.

Always keep your style clear, friendly, and job-focused.


Memo from Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”

JobWise: Little Improvements

Every day, pick one task that can be accomplished in 20 minutes or less that will improve your organization – and get it done before lunch.

It can be customer contact, ensuring long-term information storage, clean-up, relationship-building, or anything else that strengthens the team. If you’ll check off that little task every morning, you’ll make a measurable difference in your organization and in your own comfort level with the organization.

And your daily feeling of satisfaction will rise.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM


Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to Ask@HeartilyWorking.com.

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