By Jordi Cabanas-Danés
‘It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve said this but no one ever takes me seriously nor anything changes’. I am sure we have all been there. But is it really about the ‘how many times’? Or rather about the ‘how’, the ‘when’, or even the ‘where’ we say it?
As toddlers we are praised for our first words, and this admiration and approval continues up until the moment we can hold full conversations. In turn, we learn that our community or culture uses a specific system of communication: a unique language made of different words or signs. Failing to use the same system as our conversation partner will jeopardize understanding or agreement, which hints to a critical aspect of effective communication:
A common ground.
How does this communication common ground look like then? There is certainly no magic recipe but besides using the same language, it all starts with matching communication styles and preferences. Having the chance of determining the preferred style of our interlocutor early in the conversation while being aware of one’s own behavioral traits, will give us more time to adapt our style, in order to smoothen communication and strengthen the relationship.
In the late 10’s and early 20’s of the previous century, together with the introduction of the analytical psychology field, there was a growing interest for categorizing human personalities under different dimensions. Within this historical context, American psychologist William Moulton Marston published the book Emotions of Normal People1 in 1928. In this book, with a title that has aged terribly, Marston described the DISC theory, which classifies human behavior along two axes: being passive or active towards an environment which can be favorable or antagonistic, resulting in four behavioral patterns. Both the DISC theory and its plethora of pseudo-scientific behavior self-assessment tools are to this day equally embraced and criticized. Whether you find these classifications more of a horoscope-type theory or a behavior manual, one thing is certain: being aware that i) people have different behavioral traits that impact their communication styles and ii) we are all capable of adapting our own style to better match that of others, can definitely come in handy when it comes to communication. For example, we might want to cut to the point when speaking to someone who appears to be more direct and interested in results, while saving a comprehensive explanation of each step of our reasoning for someone who is more process or human driven. The key is of course not to alter the content of your speech or text but adapting your style instead.
Adapting, not mirroring
The prospective of adapting our communication styles for the sake of making conversing more effective might seem unfair though. Why do we need to do all the work, while our interlocutors can just effortlessly speak their minds? Well, while mirroring someone’s style could potentially lead to a communicative cul-de-sac, adapting your style will ensure a dynamic dialogue, to which your interlocutor will also be forced to adapt, thereby hopefully setting the base for an improved outcome.
The cultural context
The culture in which we grew up also impacts our communication preferences largely. In 1959, American anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the high- and low-context culture classification in his book The Silent Language.2 Once again, this was not free from criticism due to its lack of empirical rigor. As binary as it might seem, this classification is intended to reflect a continuum containing verbal and nonverbal cultural communication preferences. For example, countries such as Japan, China, Spain or France are categorized more towards the high-context end, thereby paying more attention to the context, the tone and the meaning of the messages. On the other hand, The Netherlands and the United States are located in the low-context end of the spectrum, praising direct, simple and precise messages and in general, valuing written above oral communication. As a simple example, the sentence: ‘I will do my best to come to your party’ could be interpreted as ‘don’t expect me’ in a high-context culture, while it could be taken more literally by a low-context culture. Being aware of these differences can, in part, help us both understand and prevent miscommunication. Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map (2014) digs in this theory to provide practical insights for effective inter-cultural communications in the working context.3
Trial and error
Due to the dynamic intrinsic nature of communication, adapting your style on the spot remains a challenge. Therefore, when possible, you should prepare in advance. For written communication, you might want to start by considering what the preferred style of your reader(s) may be and adapting your email as such. You might be surprised by how small changes might lead to more prompt replies! For oral communication, try to prepare your meetings in advance and think about which points you want to emphasize (and how) for a greater communicative impact. Finally, listen carefully to the reactions of your interlocutor. An important part of communicating, after all, is listening. But of course there’s only so much we can control and prepare. So experiment and have fun with it. At the end, as it also often happens in science, effective communication is a matter of trial and error.
Do you want to learn more about effective communication? The PhD advisors are here for you. Get in touch with us for a consultation (firstname.lastname@example.org) and stay tuned for our upcoming workshop on the Intercultural Communication in early 2022!
1 Marston, William M. (1928). Emotions of Normal People. K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd.
2 Hall, Edward T. (1959). The silent language. Garden City, New York : Doubleday & Company, Inc.
3 Meyer, Erin (2014). The Culture Map. Public Affairs.