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Communication Is More Than Words

It's about how we say what we say.

Research that began over 35 years ago with William Moulton Marston, a Harvard PhD and the creator of the lie detector test, identifies four core scales of behavior—(1) our approach to solving problems and challenge, (2) how we interact with and influence others, (3) our desire for steadiness and logical flow, and (4) our need for compliance or conscientiousness. Where we fall on any of these scales dictates the type of communication approach we use, and no style is better than another. The problem comes in when we are living or working with someone who has different behavioral styles—and resulting communication approaches—from our own. We gravitate toward people that we like, and most of us like people who are like us! We don’t even do it on purpose; it’s just easier to talk with someone if we recognize their style and can match it.

In our personal lives and in the workplace, conflicting styles can be very destructive. Take the employee who is doing everything “right”: They are meeting or exceeding expectations on their goals. Their staff is working well with them. They are performing well in their role. But let’s say this person has a quiet and unassuming type of style. They aren’t a self-promoter and they aren’t prone to emotional ups and downs—they just quietly go along and do what’s asked of them. Most people like them and get along with them, but the problem is that the boss doesn’t think they are energetic or aggressive enough.

Of course, if they have a boss that understands and respects their style, all is well. But if their boss is someone who likes emotion, who looks for the assertive “go get ’em” kind of attitude and display of enthusiasm, this employee could actually find themselves in trouble! The boss’s perception of the employee is often the reality, and the perception may not be based upon the actual work being done. The boss may not even focus on what’s being completed, because the behavioral style and the differences in their communication choices actually speak louder than what’s being done!

This happens in our personal lives, too. We “like” one person over another not because of anything logical in most cases, but because we are comfortable with certain people and find relating and communicating to be easier. The fact is that communication with someone who displays a similar communication style to our own is easier. It flows without our giving it much attention. When we are dealing with someone who is different from us in any one of the four areas, we struggle to fully understand them. We tend to color another’s behavior with our own style, and assume we know what they mean and what they are doing based on what we would do in that same situation.

It’s important to recognize that style differences do exist. Our tendency can be to think that everyone else thinks like us. We may become frustrated when we can’t get through to another or when we feel misunderstood. Become more aware of your own preferred style. Watch the reactions of others to what you say and how you say it. The more you notice, the more you’ll become aware that it isn’t really what we say, it’s also how we say it.

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