No person is an island. Especially in the modern workplace. Over the past two decades, time spent on workplace communication and collaboration has increased more than 50%. Yet somehow, most of us still suck at it.
Whether it’s ignoring different communication styles, the missing context, tone, and body language of text-based communication, or the isolation-induced paranoia of being on a remote team, communication in the workplace is a minefield of misunderstanding.
But no matter what team you’re on—development, marketing, sales, design, etc...—knowing how to communicate with everyone in your company is a necessary skill. Not only does understanding communication styles reduce workplace stress, but all that saved time can be used for, you know, doing the job you were hired to do. (Because none of us responded to a job ad for “Professional Emailer,” right?)
In this post, we’re going to run through the different communication styles in the workplace, how to make sure you’re being heard (and listening to others), and cover the biggest barriers people face and mistakes they make when communicating at work.
The 4 main communication styles: What’s yours?
There’s a reason that from a young age we’re taught to play well with others. Our lives are spent navigating personal and professional relationships. And often, it’s our ability to be heard (and to listen) that’s the difference between success and failure.
But communicating with others isn’t always easy, or enjoyable. In fact, a 2016 Harvard Business Review article found that 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees (and you can only imagine that number is significantly higher when the roles are reversed).
Miscommunication or lack of communication kills teams, productivity, and at times, even whole companies. According to studies, most of us spend up to 80% of our days in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, leaving little time for the critical work we need to do on our own.
So what do we do? The first step in becoming a more effective communicator is to understand the different communication styles people use in the workplace.
Do a quick Google search and you’ll come up with the typical four communication styles: Assertive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and passive. The problem is, these are hard to see in other people. And worse, they don’t really tell us anything about how to communicate with different communication styles.
Instead, best-selling author and leadership coach, Mark Murphy, says the easiest way to understand communication styles is to lump them into groups based on their needs: Analytical, Intuitive, Functional, and Personal.
As the name implies, analytical communicators like hard data and real numbers. They’re wary or even suspicious of people who aren’t in command of the facts or who use vague language to describe things. For example, if you tell an analytical communicator that churn rate is down, they’ll want to know exactly what “down” means. Is that 1%? 5%? 25%?
Benefits: Being analytical means you take most of the emotion out of communication. Instead of getting swept away by your feelings on the topic, you’re able to look at things more logically and dispassionately.
Downsides: Obviously, people with a lack of emotion in their communication style can come across as cold or detached. When working with someone who likes to be more personal, it’s possible they’ll get annoyed, irritated, or frustrated.
Communicating with Analytical types:
- Provide as much detail upfront as possible
- Give them clear expectations and space to work independently
- Expect them to push back on data (to understand where it came from) and double-check information before making a decision
- Responding to them in an overly emotional way (i.e. use “I know” or “I think” rather than “I feel”)
- Framing feedback on their work as criticism
Intuitive communicators love the big picture and hate details. They don’t want to hear things explained in linear or logical order, but would rather get an overview and jump straight into the most important parts. (There’s a pretty good chance your boss has an intuitive communication style.)
Benefits: Not getting bogged down in the details means being ok with short and to-the-point communication. It also means that you’re comfortable with thinking big, looking for out-of-the-box solutions, and challenging conventions.
Downsides: When the details matter, however, someone with an intuitive communication style might not have the patience to get through it. They might zone out and miss important points or ignore nuances. Typically, intuitive communications have the hardest time working with people who are more process-driven and methodical—the “Functional communicators”.
Communicating with Intuitive types:
- Get into business right away and avoid straying from the main topic
- Be okay with and expect decisiveness and bluntness in responses
- Be prepared to answer follow-up questions with confidence
- Trying to make a business conversation into a personal one
- Taking their attitude and approach personally. They’re just more interested in the facts and moving forward that how it sounds.
- Making promises you can’t deliver on
Functional communicators are the opposite of intuitive ones. They live for processes, details, timelines, and well-thought-through plans. When talking about a project or explaining an idea, they want to go through all the details, step-by-step so nothing gets missed.
Benefits: Most team leads love functional communicators. They want to see that everything is being thought of and no small detail is missed. And because these communicators are obsessed with the nitty-gritty, they’re able to play Devil’s Advocate and look at all of the options before moving on.
Downsides: Obviously, not everyone connects with this communication style. Digging into details causes a lot of people to zone out or stop caring. While spending too long on planning makes more action-oriented people cringe.
Communicating with Functional types
- Practice “active” listening—confirm and respond to what they say and ask follow-up questions to show that you understand the plan
- Expect them to ask for details or go into “what if?” mode
- Rushing them into making decisions
- Assuming they support an idea or strategy 100% just because they’re not pushing back on the big idea
For people with a personal communication style, talking is all about emotion and connection. They don’t want to dig into details or data but rather learn about the person and how they think. As such, they’re pretty good at smoothing over difficult situations and playing diplomat.
Benefits: Taking a more personal approach to communication helps to build better, deeper relationships with others. If this is you, your teammates will see you as a confidante or the “glue” that holds everything together. And because you’re so tuned into the rest of your team, you’re able to see beyond just language and pick up on non-verbal cues that others miss (like body language and tone).
Downsides: Not everyone wants to get personal in the way they communicate. Especially at work. Having a personal communication style can make people see you as overly emotional, detached from the “reality” of a project, or touchy-feely.
Communicating with Personal types
- Approach the conversation in a casual manner
- Make sure you follow up with any details or facts in writing after the meeting
- Expect them to be overly optimistic (rather than poke holes in ideas and ask for details or deadlines)
- Talking down to them or approaching the conversation in a negative way
- Trying to confine the conversation to just the facts
- Pressuring them to do a deep dive on the details with you
How to use this information to be a better communicator
Reading through the different communication styles you probably connected with one of them more than the others. It’s important to note that no one communication style is inherently better than another. It’s also important to recognize that they all have the possibility of clashing with one another. As Mark writes:
“Picking the wrong communication style for a particular audience, whether it’s one person or a thousand, shuts down listening and can spell trouble. Learning to build flexibility around your preferred style allows others to more successfully hear the important things you need to communicate.”
In a recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Lucidchart, while 54% of people said they enjoy communicating with people who use a different style than them, 42% said different communication styles was a leading cause of miscommunication at work.
Learning to build flexibility around your preferred communication style allows others to more successfully hear the important things you need to communicate.
Understanding and recognizing the characteristics of different communication styles is a baseline. It helps you ground yourself in a conversation and know how to approach it in the best way to get your point across and to get the most from the other person.
Mastering the basics of communication:
Listen, Observe, Organize, and Connect
How many times have you walked away from an awkward afternoon meeting thinking “what the hell did that person just say?” Effective communication is about more than just understanding how someone reacts to what you’re saying. It’s about understanding, digesting, and responding in a way that makes you heard while also telling the other person that you’re listening to them.
We all know how to talk. But few of us know how to really communicate.
To become a good communicator, you have to master the basics of having a two-way conversation. And while these steps might seem basic at first, you’ll be surprised how many times you skip over them just to get to “your turn to talk”.
The first step in becoming an effective communicator is to listen. Sure, you might think you’re hearing people, but most of us only remember about half of what we hear—no matter how carefully we think we’re listening.
As John Milinovich, product manager at Pinterest writes:
Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is just give someone your full attention and make it clear to them that this is their time no matter what else I might have going on or how busy I might be.
So how do you become a more effective listener? According to political consultant Marjorie North, it starts with three techniques:
- Suspend your biases. This means everything from the topic to the speaker’s appearance, accent, or prior actions.
- Quiet your mind by focusing on what’s being said instead of thinking about your response. One great way to do this is to summarize and repeat what the other person is saying back to them. This not only helps show them you’re truly listening to them but also helps you focus on what’s being said.
- Encourage the speaker to continue sharing information by asking open-ended questions.
This last point is especially important. As many people who study workplace communication have found, there’s a “special power” that comes from asking follow-up questions.
Follow-up questions signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care about what they’re saying, and want to know more. Not to mention the fact that studies have found people who ask more questions are constantly rated as more likable.
Before you can effectively contribute to a conversation you need to know who your audience is. The first part of this is understanding their communication style (which we talked about above). But there are plenty of other ways you can find out more about what makes these people tick.
First, listen to the language they use and the detail they go into on topics. Are they interested in the subject or just going through the motions? Are they hostile or friendly in their tone? Do they have any preconceptions that might bias the conversation?
You can also read what isn’t being said. Are specific topics or angles being purposefully ignored or glossed over? What about body language? According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, just 7% of communication comes from words. 38% comes from vocal elements like tone and inflection, while 55% comes from body language and other non-verbal communication.
Reading body language is something you develop with experience. But here are a few simple things you can check for:
- Body position: Are they angled towards or away from you? Physically being aligned with someone is usually a sign of openness and trust.
- Arms: Are their arms crossed or open? Crossed arms can be a sign of discomfort or even aggression.
- Facial expression: Are they smiling? It’s basic, but we’ve all been in situations where someone’s facial expression doesn’t match what they’re saying.
- Eye contact: Are they looking at you or away? While this might vary culturally, in places like the US, making direct eye contact can be perceived as a sign of trustworthiness.
The language you use and the structure of your statements can change their meaning without you realizing it. Words have a connotative meaning (what that word makes someone feel) as well as a literal one (the dictionary definition). For example, just think of the difference between calling a dog “man’s best friend” versus a “mongrel”.
Along with using language that matches your intent (or is neutral), here are a few other suggestions:
Choose clarity over color: When it comes to communication in the workplace, clarity trumps everything else. Choose concrete, familiar words and simple sentences. Even if you have a good vocabulary, tone it down if you think there’s a chance your word choice might cause misunderstanding.
Use vivid, active language: Good communication connects with the listener. Try to speak directly to what’s been said to you, or use lively verbs and active language to keep the other person engaged.
When you need to make a point, use rhythm to your advantage: Workplace communication serves a purpose. But that doesn’t mean it has to be entirely dry all the time. When you need to drive something home, use a simple literary device like repetition or alliteration (multiple words with the same initial consonant sound). However, if you do try this, use it sparingly. Overuse can make you come across as pretentious and less credible.
Above all, your communication style and strategy need to connect with the person (or people) you’re speaking to. Be aware of the communication styles you’re interacting with and how your own might clash and adjust. Look for non-verbal clues that you might be losing interest or that your word choice is coming across in ways you hadn’t intended.
A lot of this can come down to preparation. When you put the work in beforehand to know what you’re talking about your communication can be more fluid. You can react to the way your audience is listening or responding and adapt to their feedback. As political consultant Marjorie North writes:
“A rigid communication style often prevents a meaningful connection between speaker and listener. On the other hand, a flexible style not only helps you get your point across more effectively but also keeps everyone on their toes and actively engaged.”
Breaking down the cross-team communication barrier: How to talk to people you don’t regularly work with
While the basics of communication can help you in your day-to-day, there are always situations at work that push you out of your comfort zone. Maybe you’re a developer who needs to talk to the marketing or sales team. Or a junior who has their first big meeting with the CEO.
In these situations, it’s important to know how to break down barriers, discuss topics, and work with people you don’t normally spend time around. Here are a few common scenarios with some suggestions on how to deal with them.
Talking to people with different levels of technical expertise
Is there any situation more vulnerable to miscommunication than technical and non-technical teams trying to get on the same page?
Not only do different teams speak different languages (both literally and figuratively), but they also tend to work in different ways. Your technical team might be well-versed in Agile methodologies, but start talking sprints and Scrums to your sales team and you can expect a lot of confused looks.
Creating a shared language across teams takes time. And while you can speed it up through methods like including outside stakeholders in your planning meetings or using a shared project management tool. When it comes to quick conversations, there are a few techniques you can use to break down the communication barrier between technical and non-technical teams.
First, stop treating non-technical teams as “supporting players.” While your technical team might be the driving force behind your product, constantly catering to their needs at the expense of others only widens the communication gap that’s already there.
At Google, they recognized that the best cross-team collaboration only happens when everyone has a sense of “psychological safety.” In other words, does everyone feel confident and safe in sharing ideas? What about asking questions or taking risks? Your VP of Sales asking a technical question might sound naive from your perspective, but treating it that way when they’re only trying to understand the product more intimately is a mistake.
Next, don’t make any assumptions. It’s always awkward when there’s a knowledge gap between people in a conversation. You need to find the sweet spot between assuming they have the same level of knowledge as you (and having your comments go right over their head) and overly explaining everything (and coming across as condescending). When all else fails, simply ask. “Do you know how our API works?” is an easy way to gauge how you should continue the conversation.
Finally, find multiple ways to explain things. We all learn things in different ways. You might be an analytical or logical person, while who you’re talking to is a visual learner or learns better from metaphor and analogy. If you feel there’s tension in your conversation, try explaining things in different ways. Use a metaphor or run them through a visual demo.
Making decisions on multi-team projects
Group decision making is another common scenario where communication breaks down. Major decisions about product features or the future of your company impact everyone and deserve their input, otherwise it's not uncommon to see a marked decline in employee morale as a result. But it’s too easy to get into a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.
Not only do you have issues around communication styles, but there’s also all the weird behavioral elements of being in a group.
There’s groupthink—where we silence ourselves for “the greater good” (even if we don’t believe it). Or the confirmation bias—where we’re more likely to only listen to people who agree with our point of view. And of course, analysis paralysis—where we get overwhelmed by options and put off decisions for “someday” (which we all know is code for never).
The easiest way to make sure you actually make a decision—and one that the majority agrees with—is to establish norms that put everyone on the same page. To do this, ask everyone a few questions before you dive into your meeting:
How big of a decision is this? A technical feature might seem like a big deal and priority to you, while your marketing team might feel otherwise. Before you can talk about anything else, you need to all be on the same page about the gravity of the choice and its potential consequences. One way to do this is to use the 10/10/10 rule: “How will this decision affect me/the product in 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years?”
How much (and what kind of) information do you need? Too much information can lead to analysis paralysis. While too little can tank your judgement. Every team needs to understand their top one or two priorities and not get too far into the details. As Shopify’s GM of Platform, Brandon Chu, writes:
Deciding how important a decision is, is the most important decision you can make. For people that make decisions for a living, understanding when one is really important vs. not-that-important is the most critical skill.
How will you approach making the decision as a group? In order to communicate effectively, everyone needs to know the “rules of the game.” Who gets a say? Where will research come from? How will you handle objections? How will the final decision be made and by whom?
Having an uncomfortable conversation with your boss or CEO
No one enjoys bringing up issues with their boss or CEO. Hard conversations are pretty much what they sound like. But being able to communicate properly with people above you is an important skill for everyone. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Start small: Not everyone has a comfortable relationship with their boss or CEO. And jumping into long, difficult conversations puts everyone on the defensive. Instead, lay the groundwork with short but meaningful talks. Ask insightful questions or just ask for a “second set of eyes” on your work.
- Share insights off the bat: Giving feedback can be as hard as receiving it. By starting a conversation with your own insights, you show your boss that you want them to do the same.
- Dig deeper with follow-up questions: Vague language is the bane of boss-employee conversations. If they tell you they wish the project was making faster progress, ask what that means. Does “faster” mean being done in a month? A week? A day? What would their ideal version of “progress” be at that point? The more detailed you can get your manager to be, the better.
- Use non-confrontational language: Workplace hierarchies can be a headache. But getting upset with your boss isn’t going to do you any favors. Rather than express how frustrated you are, repeat your understanding of what they’ve said and ask them to clarify. For example, “My understanding is you want X to be done by Monday morning before the all hands. Is that accurate?”
- Pick the right time: Timing can make all the difference in your workplace communication. If you’re having an awkward conversation, try to do it during a calmer time of the day or when you know you’ll both have time to discuss and digest.
Every project, job, and relationship comes down to communication
You might think that writing or designing or coding (or whatever your job title) is your most important job at work. But it’s not. Communication is. As First Round Review writes:
No matter what, the fate of every company depends on the team’s ability to communicate clearly and constructively.
Most of the stressful situations you have at work come down to miscommunication. Whereas when you feel like you’re “speaking each other’s language,” it doesn’t matter how different your approaches, ideas, or objectives are, you’ll get through it.