Effective Communication

How to Tell if Your Communication Style Isn’t Working (and Fix It)

Two colleagues discuss a work-related issue while smiling and sitting in front of a desktop computer

It’s beneficial to work with people with diverse skills and personality types—but what happens if there’s a communication divide? If your department misses deadlines, doesn’t meet expectations, duplicates work, wastes resources, or fails to prioritize, adjusting your communication style could improve the situation. Furthermore, healthy communication between team members can also increase employee satisfaction and reduce staff turnover. What most people take for miscommunication, however, actually boils down to differences in communication styles—there isn’t a “one size fits all” mode of expression to fit every need, but there could be a technique that works best based on the individual circumstances.

Here’s what you should know about how to adjust your communication style to the situation’s demands.

What Is Your Communication Style?

Several competing theories attempt to explain how communication styles should be identified and categorized. Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, for example, describes four communication styles: analytical, intuitive, functional, and personal. According to Murphy, these approaches vary depending on a person’s personality traits. If a person is data-driven, they communicate analytically; if they’re big-picture thinkers, they’re intuitive; if they process information linearly, they’re functional communicators; and if they value emotional connection, they probably take a personal approach.

Three colleagues talk about streamlining business operations during a relaxed department meeting. They are wearing business casual and sitting at a table.

But there’s a problem with sorting everyone into one of four categories—the process assumes some level of absolution. In reality, most employees probably fit into a combination of these descriptions, or their communication style changes depending on the environment.

Many factors can affect how people communicate with each other, including but not limited to:

  • Socioeconomic status
  • Professional Title / Position in Business Hierarchy
  • Company Culture
  • Department Objectives and Expectations
  • Physical Setting
  • Intended Audience
  • Race
  • Gender Norms
  • Communication Method
  • Neurological and Physiological Differences
  • Nationality and Culture
  • Age
  • Religion

Communication styles are also far from static—sometimes how a person feels in the moment determines their behavior. Around 4PM on a Friday, for example, if an employee uses short, vague descriptors while giving a presentation, is he an intuitive communicator who’s results-oriented and focused on the big picture—or is he just rushing to get out the door for the weekend?

Communication styles aren’t permanent or clearly delineated, which is why it’s important to learn how to adapt your approach to the situation and audience.

6 Tips for Adapting Your Communication Style

1. Try another method of communication.

Does a colleague prefer to read new information in an email or discuss it in real time? There are logical reasons for both approaches—emails, for example, create a paper trail that can be referred to later, whereas conversations can be more conducive to brainstorming and collaboration.

Decide what you want the exchange to achieve and which vehicle will best serve that goal. Also consider the parties involved and if they have any personal preferences—someone might prefer to receive criticism in person or over the phone, for example, instead in an email, which can seem dispassionate or abrupt and leaves little room for discussion.

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2. Change the communication frequency.

Set clear expectations for routine communications with your team, both individually and in group settings. By notifying colleagues ahead of time and creating a regular schedule, you can reinforce a sense of cohesion and give everyone an opportunity to prepare. Some projects, like technical sprints, call for daily check-ins, whereas other meetings, like performance reviews, can be conducted once or twice a year.

3. Be more specific.

It’s easy to say you need your team to deliver on a project “sometime next week,” but try to use more specific guidelines to avoid any missteps. Specificity will make it easier to schedule your time and keep projects from falling through the cracks.

It’s also important to make sure everyone operates off the same system of priorities and understands their objectives. When you invite people to a meeting, explicitly state the agenda and remind everyone at the beginning why you called them together.

4. Summarize the other person’s ideas.

A classic game of “telephone” shows how a speaker and listener can have the same conversation but leave with entirely different takeaways. To make sure the speaker and listeners are on the same page, listeners should summarize the speaker’s ideas in their own words. For example, try something like:

“What you just said seems really important. Here’s what I understand of the situation: [Insert a brief summary in your own words]. Does it seem like we’re on the same page, or did I miss anything?”

If you are in a leadership position, it’s particularly important to offer that opportunity for additions or corrections, otherwise the “telephone” miscommunication may persist simply because your team is hesitant to contradict you.

5. Share the stage.

Pauses between speakers can vary by region—for example, someone from the southwest might struggle to get a word in edgewise while talking with individuals who live in Manhattan and speak faster. Sometimes subtle differences in conversational pacing can exaggerate interpersonal breakdowns, cause frustration, or discourage someone from speaking up. In other cases, people ramble nervously to compensate for their colleague’s perceived apathy.

During any form of verbal communication, try to make sure people have opportunities to express their ideas. An equitable approach to turn-taking can make everyone feel more attentive and invested in the work. Keep in mind that some barriers, such as a video delay, can change how quickly a person can respond.

An office worker talks with colleagues over a Zoom video conference.

6. Evaluate social cues.

According to Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, communication serves two purposes: expressing ideas and negotiating relationships. In Talking from 9 to 5, Tannen explains, “Through ways of speaking, we signal—and create—the relative status of speakers and their level of rapport.”

For example, she explains, “If you say, ‘Sit down!’ you are signaling that you have higher status than the person you are addressing, that you are so close to each other that you can drop all pleasantries, or that you are angry.” The same message can mean something vastly different, depending on its context.

Take a few moments to consider how your unique background affects how you communicate, and how your audience’s background could affect their behavior. By adapting an intersectional approach, you may be able to identify ways to hone your message, listen more effectively, and collaborate. Subtle social cues set the tone and pace of all our interactions.

Become a better leader by learning how to be a better teacher

Try not to moralize communication styles or take them personally—every scenario calls for a unique approach, and there are many considerations that can inform how a person expresses or perceives information. By adapting your process as needed, you’ll be more likely to reach an understanding somewhere in the middle.

Struggling to communicate with your team? Meet with a Mentor who can help!

About the Author

Rachel Lake is a writer and editor in New York City. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. To get in touch with Rachel, contact her on LinkedIn.