Are you a watchmaker or a tell-timer? You know which you are when you think about your answer to the question, what is the time? A tell-timer would simply look at their watch and answer the question directly whereas a watchmaker will want to tell you how the watch works before getting round to telling you the time. Does that story strike a chord with you? If so, then you understand this particular dimension of communication style i.e. verbosity.
Some people are much more verbose than others. Such people, when you meet them in the morning and ask them how they are will give you such a lengthy story that, about fifteen minutes later, you are truly sorry you asked. Their communication style is what Linda McCallister refers to, in her book Say What You Mean, Get What You Want, as ‘Socratic’ after Socrates, of course, a lover of dialogue and, as we all know, a star of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
You will probably be able to bring to mind examples; people who you know who use this wordy communication style. The difficulty for them is that the devil is always in the detail. They want to answer your questions, but they are often tempted to provide additional detail as background and context in order that you might understand their eventual answer.
Contrast that style with those who, when you greet them in the morning, barely look up from their work, grunt and then get back to what they were doing. Such people – Linda likes to call their style ‘noble’ (after Rousseau’s Noble Savage) – have a direct and blunt communication style. In many respects their style is a direct opposite of the Socratic style; not just in terms of verbosity, but also in the overall approach to the discussion of any particular topic.
With nobles, the approach is top-down, preferring to stay at an overview level and drilling down into detail only when and where it is required. This is exactly the opposite of the Socratic style which revels in the detail and generally wants to tell, and hear, the entire story beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, no matter how long it takes.
A third extreme of communication style is known as the ‘reflective’ style. These are the people who are asking how you are in the first place. They are the people who say good morning, good evening, have a nice weekend and so on. They are social animals, unable to walk past each other on the stairs without nodding and saying ‘hi’. For reflectors, the important thing about communicating is the human aspects. They observe the rules of social interaction, they say please and thank you, they are courteous and they expect the same from others.
When dealing with reflectors, introductions are very important and so too is chit-chat. For them, getting right down to business after saying hello is simply too abrupt a transition. They prefer some social interaction in between the introduction and the information exchange which forms the body of the communication.
In her book, Linda describes three other styles, which are simply combinations of the three we have just discussed: she calls them the ‘magistrate’, the’ candidate’ and the ‘senator’. The magistrate style is a blended style, the combination of noble and Socratic. The candidate is a blend of the Reflective and Socratic styles. The Senator, however, is a dual style (rather than a blend) which switches between noble and reflective styles according to context.
Since the latter three styles are simply blends or combinations of the three pure styles, we only need to concern ourselves with understanding these first three i.e. noble, Socratic and reflective because your own style will be some combination of these three influences. It is very unlikely that you will be an extreme of one style or another.
Now it is important to note that each of these groups get along best with individuals who use their preferred styles, so a key principle in learning how to communicate effectively is understanding how to adjust our own style to cater for the preferences of the person we are addressing. In other words, if we are speaking with a noble – someone who calls a spade a spade – we need to adopt a straight-forward approach to communication. We need to answer questions directly, even if we feel the person might not understand the answer. And that’s exactly how nobles like to be dealt with; if they need anything clarifying, they will prefer to ask.
If we are dealing with a reflective, we need to ensure that we are polite, that we introduce ourselves properly, that we show some interest in them personally and conform to the social dimensions of the interaction. Simply getting involved in a little pre-amble or social chit-chat before getting down to talking turkey is all it takes to make a significant improvement in our ability to deal with this group.
With Socratic communicators, there is always the difficulty of time, especially in the workplace where time is usually at a premium. But remember that the detail that is being offered is generally not irrelevant. Socratic communicators are usually not off-topic, like reflectors. They are providing background and context that is relevant, so we need to make a mental effort to give them our full attention.
Remember that none of these pure styles or their derivatives (magistrate, senator and candidate) are right as such, although each of them thinks their way is right. Nobles think that communication should be top-down, talking at an overview level and drilling into detail only where necessary. Socratics think that all avenues of a topic need to be fully explored before making decisions. And reflectors believe that the most important part of the interaction is the social part.
So part of the art of communicating well is learning to listen not only to what is being said, but to how it is being said. Listen for verbosity and social content; just those two things, and you will be able to figure out the other person’s bias toward one of these styles. Once you understand that, simply give them what they want.
If you can practice this simple method of adjusting your own communication style, despite your own biases and preferences, you will begin to get on with people you previously found difficult. They won’t know what you are doing. They will know you are doing something different but, generally, they will be unable to put their finger on what it is. They will just know that they are getting along with you a lot easier.
Eventually, if you continue to practice this method, you will get better at it and, eventually, you will no longer even have to think about it because the whole approach will become a natural part of you. Try it out for a month and watch the results. You can have a great deal of fun working with the idea and, in addition, you will be significantly improving your ability to communicate.