Got Influence? Better Figure Out Who’s Who in the Zoo First

Keys to Communicating with Different Styles


It seems to me that each of us struggles with at least one communication style in the workplace. Do you struggle with the person who provides lots of detail and won’t get to the point? Do you struggle with someone who is so direct it hurts?

No matter your communication style, it’s likely you have encountered someone whose communication style confounds you.

A quote often attributed to the author George Bernard Shaw says, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language!”

Are you working on a team whose members are separated by a common language?

I believe that within companies, and even on teams, we are often separated by the same language. I’ve seen this at play so many times over the years that I am not only alert for it, and but I almost expect it.

Here’s an example. While coaching the executive team of a rapidly growing medical software-development company, we discovered that the communication styles of Jeffrey, the COO, and Thomas, the CFO, were vastly different. Both were amazed to discover that each was hearing the other’s comments through their own filter. The effect of that filter was similar to how a prism refracts light—the light bends and changes direction dramatically.

When Jeffrey said, “I am thinking about implementing a new way of onboarding new clients,” Thomas heard that the decision was made and implementation was underway. Jeffrey was hesitant to make the changes without feedback and deliberation. Thomas wondered why Jeffrey hadn’t made the move.

Conversely, when Thomas said, “I am considering changing banks because our bank doesn’t have robust enough Treasury offerings,” Jeffrey heard that more input was needed before a decision could be reached. Meanwhile, Thomas had already been to the new bank and paperwork was underway. Jeffrey wondered why he wasn’t consulted first.

This example illustrates several important differences:

1. Priorities and focus within the company
2. Pace and decision-making speed
3. Filters for hearing and processing information
4. Levels of information required before making a decision
5. Levels of assertiveness

Most importantly, there is an underlying assumption (which all of us make from time to time) that others think just as we do. When Jeffrey and Thomas uncovered these differences, they were both thunderstruck. The next part of the conversation included statements that began like this: “But I thought you meant . . .” Yes, they were separated by a common language. It’s as though we need a “secret decoder ring” to translate what these other personality types are saying.

Four Concepts to Guide You

Here are a few guidelines to identify who’s who in the zoo. If you can keep just four basic concepts in mind about the individuals you are working with, it will provide you with invaluable insight into their style. If you are willing to make reasonable adaptations to their style, your communication will be more effective. Misunderstandings and conflict will likely be diminished.

1. What is their pace?
Are they brisk, blunt, and bottom-line oriented? Are they thoughtful, receptive, and require time to think before responding?

2. What is their energy?
Are they harmonious and accepting, or analytical and precise? Do they come across expressive and warm, or more focused on results? Do they enjoy working with teams, or prefer solo work?

3. What is important to them?
Are relationships and ideas more important than facts and results, or is the reverse true?

4. How do they address conflict?
Are they conflict averse? Or do they struggle to consider how their blunt words may have a negative impact? Do they approach conflicts with diplomacy and tact?

By answering these four questions, you will understand more about the preferred communication style of your team members and can adapt more readily. Perhaps that blunt person or the detailed communicator won’t confound you so much. In time, knowing who’s who in the zoo and influencing will become second nature.