Not Knowing Communication Styles can Sabotage your Work

Jim walked out of a recent meeting with his promising, smart new teammate, Jill, seething with frustration.

“I can’t tell which Jill will show up — Jeckyll or Hyde,” he spluttered to his coach. Jim’s gestures were sharp, fast slashes at the air. “One day she’s brilliant and we make amazing progress. The next day she won’t let me talk, we interrupt each other, we misunderstand every other sentence. I start to question her intelligence and her motives. It’s nightmarish.”

Later, it was Jill’s turn.

“Jim runs so hot and cold,” Jill muttered. She glared at the floor.  “Some meetings go so well. Others…” She trailed off, frowning. “I don’t know how we’re going to be able to work together.”  That was a big admission for someone recently promoted onto a high profile team.

The Pattern

Upon analysis, we found the reason for their strife, and for its odd-seeming on-again, off-again nature.

In some meetings Jill would take the lead on a topic and Jim would facilitate her, white-boarding her thoughts, coaxing her, challenging her.  Her ideas flowed easily and reached conclusions that astonished and delighted her. These sessions were highly productive, smooth, and rewarding. Work progressed rapidly.

Other times Jim would need to work something out and Jill would facilitate him.  Jim was again at the whiteboard, now drawing his own ideas, responding to Jill’s probing. Her questions took him deeper, further and faster than he’d ever gone.  These sessions quickly became Jim’s favorite work experiences.

But the third sort of meeting was horrific. They would interrupt each other, voices would start to rise, and each would accuse the other of not listening. These ended in acrimony, hurt feelings, and immense frustration.

On close examination and with reflection, we uncovered that Jim was a visual thinker who frequently needed to process ideas silently for a few moments, and needed to draw pictures to represent his ideas. Jill was a kinaesthetic learner who needed to talk to someone in order to discover what she herself thought.

When they deliberately took turns of 45 minutes each, they could work together very well. When they tried to simply “have a conversation” with nobody particularly in the lead and nobody facilitating, their styles clashed — badly. Jim would try to get Jill to acknowledge a point, interrupting her thoughts; she would talk ideas out, rolling right over Jim and ignoring his words. Each repeatedly violated the other’s unspoken expectations and obstructed each other’s thinking process.

Next Steps

With coaching, their relationship shifted to nearly 100% positive in a few weeks.

“I get it,” Jim said. “I was interpreting her talking over me as rude and belittling. She was just trying to complete her thoughts. When I tried to interrupt or insist she hear me before she was done with her own thoughts, it totally derailed her ability to think, frustrating her. Now, I simply realize she’s forming her thoughts out loud and needs some space and my active listening.”

Jill shook her head and half smiled. “I thought we were doomed. Now, before I start to unpack a thought, I just have to notice when Jim is silent and check in to see if he’s still processing a thought, or if he’s available to listen. It’s so much better now.”

This is by no means an unusual experience.

There are two very different learning and communication styles.

Two Communication Styles

Information Absorption Style

How do you best passively absorb new incoming information?

  • As a Reader
  • As a Listener

Learning Style

How do you best actively process, work with, learn and retain new material?

  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Writing
  • Talking
  • Drawing
  • Movement

These two dimensions are part of the Thriving Self Profile I create with clients to help them build effective teams.

Five Other Dimensions of Work Style

Here are the rest of the seven dimensions that affect work performance. Knowing yourself and your colleagues, and seeing how you each work best, can save you a wealth of time and help you get along far better than you would if you were ignorant.

Structural Preference

What sort of work environment is most comfortable for you?

  • Highly Predictable, Structured
  • Middling
  • Highly Unpredictable or Flexible

Deadline Sensitivity

How do you handle time pressure at work?

  • Enjoy the energy of a pressing deadline
  • Can tolerate it
  • Collapse in the face of a deadline


With which sort of social surroundings do you work best?

  • Alone
  • In small groups
  • In large groups

Decision Making

What brings out the best in you when it comes to decision making?

  • I’m happy to make decisions, even large ones
  • I can make small decisions easily, but struggle with large ones
  • I’m much more effective as an advisor to a decision maker


What sort of hierarchic placement is best for you?

  • I work best as a subordinate to a strong leader
  • I work best as a peer
  • I work best when I’m in independent command


Here’s the Point

We all need to take charge of helping our bosses and peers get along with us better, and a first step is in knowing your own work style along these seven dimensions. As with Jim and Jill, once you’re armed with this self-knowledge, you are at least capable of devising win-win agreements with your colleagues about how you’ll work together.

Or as Socrates said, “Know thyself.”


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