Style Guide: Tune Your Communication for Better Results

Article by Jamie Cleaver

People have different styles of communication. Knowing your style, and the style of others can be a significant benefit in life.

WELCOME to this regular slot that focuses on professional skills for chemical engineers. This month we continue our theme of communication, by examining different styles of communication.

Have you ever found that there are some people you just cannot click with? You both speak the same language, you don’t have noticeable differences of opinion, but any attempt to connect with this person through dialogue seems to fail. This can be a massive problem, especially if the person is part of your team, or is one of your clients.

There’s logic that goes something like this. 

  1. Different people have different styles of communication.
  2. Understanding the difference between our style and the style of others can help us to be more effective communicators.
  3. More effective communication leads to more success.

Examining differences in people’s temperament is an old game. Hippocrates (460–370 BC) developed the four temperaments to describe differences in behaviour. This concept still lives on today in systems like the DISC Assessment, and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. Mother-and-daughter team Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers developed the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung to produce their widely-used Myers Briggs Type Index, (MBTI). These, and other approaches have been used by many to understand themselves and others.

More effective communication leads to more success

For me, there is one approach that stands out from the rest. This is an approach called social styles. It originated in the 1960s from a pair of industrial psychologists called David Merrill and Roger Reid who wanted to see what they could learn from analysing observable behaviour. It stands out because:

  • It is based on observable behaviour only, ie, what people say and what they do.
  • It is not based on psychology and does not analyse personality.
  • It is based on statistical analysis of real data, rather than a theory.
  • It is non-judgemental.
  • It is very easy to grasp.
  • It is powerful and effective.

Merrill and Reid took a massive data set of observable behaviour from individuals and used some groundbreaking (at the time) factor analysis. They identified two independent axes that they called responsiveness and assertiveness to describe the style of social interaction. Essentially, responsiveness indicates the extent to which people control emotions or allow space for emotions, and assertiveness indicates the tendency for a person to assert themselves by asking questions, or by directly stating. 

The two axes create a diagram of four quadrants that characterise four very different styles of communication behaviour. 

The key differences in the styles are:

Driving: Faster pace, goal-focussed, serious and formal.

Expressive: Faster pace, focus on generalities, casual and informal.

Amiable:  Slower pace, focus on relationships, casual and informal.

Analytical:  Slower pace, focus on detail, serious and formal.

Merrill and Reid found that people naturally fitted into one of the four styles, and they developed an assessment tool to diagnose style, based purely on observable behaviour.

Once we know our style, and the style of others, we can work out how to tune our style to get the best out of any conversation or dialogue. This is where the social styles approach plays its trump card. Using the same observable behaviour data, Merrill and Reid identified a third axis called versatility. This is a measure of how well a person can adapt their style to meet the style of others. Versatility is something that can be developed, and therefore it takes the social styles approach from being a tool to label people’s behaviour, to a powerful tool for improving inter-personal communication. 

There is one final trick up the sleeve of the social styles approach. We are not necessarily well positioned to comment on our own behaviour, because we cannot see ourselves objectively. There is provision for social styles assessments to incorporate other people’s observations of our behaviour. This can give a more accurate indication of our style and versatility. Secondly, it is a rich opportunity to learn from any differences between how we see ourselves, and how others see us.

Merrill and Reid were founding members of an organisation called TRACOM back in the 1960s. Today, TRACOM is the world leader in social styles, both for research, and for providing training programmes and assessments.

If you find that there are some people you can get on with better than others, then perhaps the social styles approach might be worth a look.

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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