Updated: Sep 14, 2019
I don't know how many people I have written off in my life because of communication styles. I know it's probably a lot though. I suspect I have been written off by a lot of people for the same reason.
We all fall into conversation traps that can cause us to misunderstand and disconnect from each other.
Those traps include:
Assuming that everyone thinks and communicates the same as you. This assumption can cause frustration and annoyance when in conversation with someone who has a different communication style.
Taking actions based on your feelings. Think for a moment about how difficult it is to keep listening to someone who is annoying you. That frustration can result in you disconnecting from the conversation.
Shutting down empathy and curiosity as a result of feelings of fear of not being heard and understood. How often have you misunderstood what someone was trying to say and felt like they might be trying to take advantage of you? Instead of asking for clarification, I am almost certain in that instance you probably either lashed out or retreated from the conversation. Am I right?
Being drowned out by strong internal dialogue and criticism that competes with and is often louder that the person speaking to us. Think of a time when someone paid you a compliment, but inside your head there was a voice saying “Why’s that person saying nice things to you? What do they want?”. Instead of saying thank you, you reacted and pushed the person away.
Assuming that because you know what you are trying to communicate, that your listener will understand what you mean.
The meaning resides with the listener
I regularly receive unsolicited applications from graduates for mentorship, employment, advice, and CV reviews. One recent conversation has really made me think about how communication can shape your brand and impact the response you are likely to receive when you ask for help.
"The meaning of your communication is the response you get". Gregory Bateson
The conversation started off well enough - a graduate had approached me with a request to mentor him on how to get a job.
After I had put in a few hours' effort giving feedback on the graduate's CV and LinkedIn profile, detailed recommendations on changes to make, and comprehensive emails with added things to think about, I found myself getting irritated with the short responses and general lack of "please", "thank you" and "I appreciate the support you are giving me".
As the listener I was starting to perceive this graduate as somewhat obnoxious.
Perhaps being very direct and goal orientated in your communication is your particular style, but you may find that if this is how you communicate with everyone, that some people may be writing you off as being rude or ungrateful.
The imbalance between the effort I was putting in, and his short, almost curt responses, was really getting my back up.
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Then I got curious about my irritation
I have a lot of awareness about how easily we stop listening when someone's communication annoys us, so I have a fairly good level of empathy around poor communication.
I was curious about how this graduate’s communication style would have impacted him if he was communicating with people who didn’t have time or the interest in being curious about what he might be trying to say.
I started imagining how this conversation, that was annoying me, might be perceived by others.
The brand that your communication creates
I was hearing the graduate's communication through my lens on the world which is influenced by:
taking time to ask people how they are,
seeking to serve and provide value.
In a nutshell, I use a lot of words. Other people use minimum words and get to the point.
Through my lens, I was experiencing the graduate as abrupt, curt, almost rude and probably someone that I didn't want to invest any further time in.
I almost took a decision to end our communications
I was falling into the trap of disconnecting based on my emotions.
But out of curiosity I decided in my final email to him, to point out how I was experiencing his communication style, and that it might be impacting on his communications with other people. And I am so glad I took that step.
From that email has emerged a completely different communication style from the graduate.
More importantly though, came a better understanding of:
the lens through which he experiences the world and how that drives his communication;
how he could be perceived by people with a different world view to him;
how his communication style could have been impacting on his ability to build his professional network.
My tips for communication that supports your brand
First seek to serve
When you first contact someone to ask for help, start out by building a relationship with the person that you want help from.
For example, if you are connecting with someone for the first time, introduce yourself, comment on what has attracted you to the person, and perhaps follow that up with a question on how you could be of value to them.
Instead of "Hello I am xyz. I want you to mentor me and help me find a job", how about something like this:
"Hello I am xyz. I have read a few of your posts on LinkedIn/read some of your work/heard you speak at a conference and really liked what you had to say about abc. I have recently completed my studies in xyz and want to improve my skills in abc. I was wondering if there would be a way in which I could be of service to you?”
What that says about your brand is that you are someone who is looking for ways to build your networks by serving others.
On the rare occasion someone will help you just because you asked. But for the most part, people tend to be willing to help those who invest in themselves and others. It's a far more powerful brand than just asking for help.
Mirror your listener's communication style
Once you have established a connection with the person that you want help from, try matching their communication style. If they are short and to the point, once you get to know them, mirror that with a similar style. People who get to the point quickly, rarely have time to listen to a long story.
If they take the time to explain things and put effort into giving you a detailed response, then reciprocate that effort with a similar style of communication.
Responding to someone's three paragraph email, with "Ok", could be interpreted as dismissive and possibly even suggest that you didn't read the email.
Taking time to comment on each point would create the perception that you valued the effort.
Stay curious, make no assumptions and ask questions
I could so easily have dismissed this graduate for his abrupt communication style. But in the back of my mind I had a feeling I was misunderstanding him because of our different world views and experiences.
If you find yourself getting annoyed with someone because of their communication style, or not quite understanding where they are coming from, I urge you to see that as a cue to get curious... curious about how their world view may be different to yours, how you may be hearing them through your own filters, how they may be communicating based on their own cultural norms.
Instead of disconnecting from the conversation, perhaps ask a question.
Something along the lines of “I feel like I might be misunderstanding what you are saying – this is what I am hearing. Is that what you intended to say?"
Have you had an experience where communication styles caused a misunderstanding? What tips have you got that might help improve communications?
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I love conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.
I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself. I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.
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