What I Say vs. What You Hear: Flexing Your Style for Effective Communication


Apr 10, 2016 | EDR Blog

By Heather Adams for EDRblog.org

It really gets my goat when colleagues do not read my emails. I write amazing emails – with tons of context! Bulleted lists! To-do’s! How dare they not read what I spent so much energy writing? It’s so inconsiderate! And oh, how superior I feel when someone replies with a question I’ve already answered. “Just read the email!” I think. I read carefully to glean every detail; why can’t they?

This attitude has led me to some not-exactly-stellar behavior, especially for someone in the field of conflict resolution. (Think snarky comments, awkward conversations, etc.) I firmly believed my way was the right way. They were wrong.

I joined Co-Creation Partners in mid-2015 with this attitude. A coworker quickly set me straight. “We feel both overwhelmed and bored by your emails. They take so much energy to read, and I’m scared I’ll miss something! Can’t we just talk it over on the phone?” Woah. It hit me—although my emails met my communication needs, they completely failed to meet my coworkers’, and therefore to communicate anything at all.

Which brings me to my point:

Effective communication isn’t what you say. It’s what the other person hears.

This is especially true in times of conflict. How much easier is it to convey – or hear – an unintended message when we’re under stress, or when our fight/flight/freeze response to threat has been triggered?

In the workshops my firm facilitates, we emphasize that we can more effectively communicate by flexing our style to meet the needs of our audience. Drawing on the four-quadrant communication styles model developed by the people-development firm Insights, we help workshop participants understand that some people are more to-the-point and task-oriented, while others focus on building relationships. Some are detail-oriented and analytical; others thrive on big ideas. (Some like detailed emails; others just want bullet points!) All styles are important – particularly in complex problem-solving – because each one brings a different strength or perspective to the table. But in times of stress or disagreement, we tend to default to our favored style and can often struggle to flex. This means we can fail to effectively communicate precisely when it’s most important.

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Appreciating different communication styles is especially critical in the field of conflict resolution because helping all parties understand and feel understood within stressful circumstances can make the difference between success and failure. I’ve seen many heated exchanges defused through effective communication. For example, when a facilitator “translated” for two parties during an argument, choosing words and non-verbal cues that resonated with each person. She flexed to each of the listeners’ styles… and it made all the difference because, in the heat of the moment, they were not able to do so themselves. She helped them hear what they couldn’t before.

If we remember that what we say isn’t important – what others hear is – and combine that with an understanding of the different communication styles, it becomes easier to flex even under stress.

But if effective communication is what the other person hears, does that mean the burden lies entirely on the communicator? What about the communicatee? In my experience, the only person I can change is myself – so if effective communication is my goal and I’m the listener, I should take on as much of the burden as I can. However, in many cases messages are communicated very differently from how I would convey them, leading me to perhaps overlook or fail to appreciate them (see my story below!). To effectively listen, we must flex our listening style and stay open to how others might be trying to get a message across. I recommend Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton’s classic book Difficult Conversations for great advice on how to be a good (flexible) listener. In particular, they emphasize the importance of cultivating self-awareness and moving from a place of certainty to a place of curiosity (p. 37-40). Put in psychologist Carol Dweck’s terms, if we maintain a curious learner’s mindset, we can often stay much more open to other communication styles – even during conflict.

My story—When I lived in Japan, I belonged to a karate club. After practice, the other girls and I always changed into street clothes before heading home. Occasionally, the senior black belt commented, “Wow, Heather, you are so comfortable with your body. Americans must be so confident. We Japanese are not as confident.” And I generally replied, “Thank you! I suppose I am comfortable with my body.” About eight months – and at least three such conversations – later, it finally hit me: All the girls wore oversized t-shirts under their uniforms and changed clothes under those shirts. They revealed almost no skin – and, I realized, I was making them highly uncomfortable by stripping to my sports bra. The senior black belt tried to tell me as directly as she knew how that I should stop changing so immodestly, but for months I was oblivious to her message. I hadn’t yet learned to stay curious and flex my listening style.

heather-adamsSo the challenge, particularly for conflict resolution practitioners, is twofold: Stay open and curious about what messages we may not be absorbing, and flex your message-sending approaches to appeal to multiple communication styles. No matter what role you’re playing, effective communication is all about what the listener hears.

Heather Gilmartin Adams is a consultant and engagement manager for Co-Creation Partners, an organizational culture transformation consultancy. With an educational background in international peacebuilding, she loves working at the nexus of organizational culture, personal transformation and conflict resolution. She holds degrees from Columbia and Princeton Universities.