Friday, July 01, 2011

Interpersonal Communication: Communication Styles

This is a continuation of a series.  Check below and to the right on the archive to find the preceding parts of this series.  They are being posted in reverse order, so start back in late June.
High context vs. low-context.  This subject is discussed fully in the text in chapter 3.Low-context cultures generally are more explicit.  They don’t take it for granted everyone knows the social rules.  So they will be more verbal.  High context cultures assume everyone knows the rules and they don’t have to be explained.  A person doesn’t have to be from another country to experience this difference.  If the communication climate of a workplace is one of not explaining the background or context for policies or decisions of the past, it can be frustrating for newcomers.  I used to work with a woman, who, whenever we sat down to make policy changes in our department, had to explain the whole history.  That’s taking low-context to an extreme, but it’s not always a bad idea.  While new employees have a responsibility to ask the right questions and adapt, some people’s communication style is to assume that the situation needs no explaining.
Blunt vs. deferential.  This is stereotypical male and female style division, but that classification doesn’t always apply.  Deferential communicators use hedging (saying “sort of”); excuse themselves ahead of and after the fact (either saying I’m sorry or “This may be a dumb question”); use qualifiers (maybe, perhaps); indirection (“people think” instead of “I think”); tag lines (“don’t you think?”); and questions as starters or as answers.  More blunt communication can be anything from curt to simply forthright answers.  Another aspect here is addresses such as “sir” or “ma’am” which you may have been taught to say growing up but should not use habitually or thoughtlessly in the workplace. People who tend toward deference believe they are more polite, thoughtful, and people- or team-oriented, but that is not how it is always perceived.  Sometimes it’s perceived as indecisiveness, manipulation, or weakness by those who do not share the style.  There is some evidence to suggest that one reason women do not get promotions in the workplace is because they use too much of this deferential language.
High verbal vs. low-verbal.  High verbal people simply like to talk.  They like to hear words coming out of their mouths and others’ (but mostly their own).  Words are how they connect and inform.  These are the people who have no trouble using their cell phone minutes! These people may be interrupters, either because they are not listening or because they are listening and are trying to help the other person use more words (such as finishing sentences).  High-verbal folks may talk much more quickly—more words per minute, fewer pauses, and quicker response time—than others.  Low-verbal people (the old-fashioned words were taciturn and laconic, but those are evaluative) may be reserved, may speak slowly and with hesitations or nonfluencies (er, uh, um) and may have a hard time jumping into a conversation.  They are careful to structure their messages and speak methodically.  These people may be more likely to be in a technical field.  A low-verbal may not speak as often in a team meeting but when he or she does, it will be worth it (and will probably take longer). Unfortunately, low-verbal people are often judged as less intelligent than the high-verbals.  If you are a high verbal, be careful not to talk past the low-verbals or exclude them. 
Print learners vs. aural learners.  Print learners have a hard time making eye contact when they talk, because they see the words in their heads when they are composing oral sentences.  They are looking for them, so to speak.  Aural learners may have more eye contact.
Tolerance for conflict/ambiguity/risk vs. desire for high level of control. Some people are highly uncomfortable with confrontation or conflict between themselves and others or just between two or three others in their environment.  If a team of seven people are working together and two seem to square off, some people might feel that blocks all work entirely, while others think it helps more ideas and energy come out of the clash.  The people in the second group—who like the clash—probably like the clash of ideas with other people and don’t take it personally. Unfortunately, those with a low tolerance for the conflict may assume that conflict of ideas at some level is a personality conflict.  Needless to say, from a communication standpoint they are wrong, but that doesn’t really matter.  In such a situation, the leadership of the group/team will need to be proactive about focusing the discussion on ideas and jump in when someone seems to be critical of someone, not just his/her ideas. 
Those with a desire for high level of control may squelch conflict of ideas, eliminate opportunities for dissent, and see a disagreement as threatening.  They may dislike change as well.  Obviously, both of these ends of the spectrum have good points and bad points.  A leader with a tolerance for ambiguity, conflict, and risk might lose sight of the practicalities of the discussion.
Internal locus of control vs. external locus of control.  This has much to do with who gets credit and blame.  Now, all of us fall into the fundamental attribution error:  “In judging other people, the tendency to attribute their successes to the situation and their failures to their personal characteristics.”  The opposite tends to be true for most of us:  “In judging our own behavior, the tendency to attribute our successes to our personal characteristics and our failures to the situation!”   People with an internal locus of control take responsibility for their actions and this will be obvious in their talk.  These folks would fall into the fundamental attribution error rarely.  Those with an external locus of control find ways to explain their behavior in terms of other people or situational factors. 
Related to the locus of control is a problem-orientation or a solution- orientation. Why did sales go down?  Was it something inevitable, out of our hands, and all we can learn from it is that we can’t learn from it, since it’s all about luck anyway?  Or was it something that can be fixed?  Or, in a team or group meeting, do some people want to spend a lot of time looking at the problem and focusing blame, whining, or talking about the good old days, or do they want to look at the problem only in order to analyze it and move on?
Scripting vs. creativity. Scripting refers to communication “scripts,” conventional patterns of communication and talk.  Some scripts are necessary, such as when you ask someone in the office, “How are you today?” we don’t expect a litany of aches and pains and personal struggles.  The context determines that’s not appropriate.  But scripting can become clichés and pseudo-communicating and by-passing.  Some people have a low tolerance for scripting because they don’t feel that they are really being heard or they are expressing themselves if everything sounds like other conversations.
Deborah Tannen uses the term “communication rituals” to refer to patterns of scripting that reflect our styles.  Groups of people will tend to have communication rituals, meaning they all have the same communication styles and interact that way.    
Inductive (narrative) vs. deductive (direct structure).  This style factor can also be associated with gender, but it may also be due to the roles and behavior that the genders have traditionally been assigned.  An inductive structure means that you give the evidence and details and then make your point (or answer the question).  Obviously, inductive structure demands that a person be a good storyteller, so to speak, to keep the audience on track, because they could get lost in details without a map.  A deductive or direct structure means you make the point (or give a definite answer) up front and then give background, possibly finishing up with the point again.  The business communication environment prefers the deductive.
High self-disclosure vs. low self-disclosure.  The first group I call the “TMI-ers”--too much information.  On the other hand, low self-disclosure will result in lack of trust.  If you ask me personal questions and I disclose personal information but you respond in generalizations and “Oh, nothing much” ways to my questions to you about personal matters, I’m going to wonder what’s the deal and what are you hiding.  However, the low self-disclosure may have low self-esteem, may think his/her life has nothing special going on, may have something too painful going on to talk about it, and may be truly interested in the other person. 
Of course, in the business environment, there are some different contextual rules in relation to self-disclosure; you are called upon in a job interview or performance review to tell things about yourself that your supervisor does not have to tell about herself/himself.  But the informal communication that goes on in the workplace and that provides a lot of the “metamessage” elements does allow for some level of self-disclosure.
3.4.10 Informality vs. formality.  Casual vs. old school?  Khakis vs. button-down?  Maybe.  But communication-wise, this relates to the level of slang and pseudo-obscenity that a person is comfortable with hearing and using.  It also may relate to tolerance for unstructured communication encounters. 
Hierarchical communication vs. connective communication.  This spectrum is related to symmetrical vs. complementary communication, and is also considered an aspect of gender.  Women are acculturated to use talk for making connections, while men are acculturated to use communication to solve problems, fix things (and people) and to win.  A hierarchical view of communication means outcomes are determined in win-lose or one-up/one-down dichotomies.  According to the hierarchical communicator, “the outcome of communication should be agreement, preferably with me.” Talking is often likely to become an argument; if you don’t agree with me, we haven’t really talked.  Communication for the connective person may seem “nicer,” but it can get bogged down with details that don’t matter and lead to false solidarity.  A person who says, “Oh, I know what you mean,” or “I know what you are going through” may only be saying it because that is the script he/she learned, that communication is about connecting, and not because he/she really understands.

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