People with different behavioral styles communicate differently, which often leads to conflicts in communication. On the communication continuum, people range from being very direct communicators to very indirect. While some of those indirect communicators are talkative extroverts, many are introverted, like me.
A person who is people-oriented, patient and relaxed may tend to speak indirectly. If you are familiar with the DISC behavioral model, these would be people in the “Steadiness” category (those with a high-S factor). Conversely, individuals who are ambitious risk takers or are task-oriented tend to speak more directly. No matter how different our communication styles are, there is one universal rule we all need to follow that can help us to communicate more effectively: listen for intention. As I continue to practice my listening skills, I have learned two important lessons as an indirect (high-S) communicator.
- Don’t assume “why” is a personal challenge.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been taken aback by the simple question: “why?” Of course, not all why questions are created equal. It all depends on the voice, tone, facial expression, situation and context.
For all the direct communicators out there, the why question serves only one purpose: to get more understanding, nothing more. If this individual is driven to discover the truth, the “why” question will be raised more often.
On the other hand, you have indirect communicators like me. I often get offended by the “why” question because I feel like I am being challenged. It’s as if the other person is saying “it’s so obvious that you were wrong, why would you do this?” While this may not be the intent of the direct communicator, a person may perceive it this way, depending on the tone in which the question is asked.
Many indirect communicators are very reserved. When someone asks us "why," we feel as if the person asking the question doubts our abilities.
Speaking indirectly is so rooted in Asian culture, it is the only way I feel comfortable communicating. Because I am sensitive to people asking the question “why,” I try to position the same question in a much softer, more indirect way when I am asking the question. Here is an example how would I raise the “why” question.
My friend has been telling me he wants to get some career guidance from his Physics professor. When I found out he still hadn’t talked with the professor, instead of asking “why” directly, I asked “is there anything stopping you?” This showed my interest in his situation without questioning his motivation.
Being an indirect communicator, I sometimes interpret words into messages that may or may not be the speaker’s intention. I often hear words that the other person never said. Even after I realize this fact, it’s still extremely difficult to fight with my natural tendency to interpret the “why” question as a personal challenge. I have to remind myself constantly to stop assuming that the other person’s intent is negative.
- Do not devalue your role in the communication process
There are many factors to effective communication. These factors include, but are not limited to, whether or not we understand each other’s intention, language differences, and culture. People from high context cultures, meaning those who rely on implicit communication and nonverbal clues, communicate gently and value humility. However, being too soft and humble can lead us to overextend and may end up putting ourselves in what appears to be a less important position. That’s the second mistake I used to make: assuming other person’s voice is more important than mine.
When I make this unconscious assumption, I become more reserved. When I’m being reserved, I reinforce this incorrect assumption. It’s a negative vicious cycle that causes me to further position myself as less important that the other person.
As an indirect communicator, I sometimes tend to discount my own voice. I often let those who openly express their opinions take the lead. The result is I lose the chance of participating the decision-making process. Even worse, I might feel compromised and unappreciated at the end of an conversation.
Let me give you some examples of how I communicate in a reserved way. Whenever I want to make a suggestion in a group, I use the word “maybe” a lot. I might say, “maybe this solution is better.” Another word interpreted differently by me is “prefer.” If my friends told me they want to have Chinese food for dinner, I immediately think that they have a strong preference and I opt out the dinner negotiation. Being indirect, I sometimes forget that the intention of a discussion is to get the opinions of all people involved.
Just because a direct communicator may have an idea about a topic, it doesn’t mean the topic is closed for discussion. They just have a different way of expressing their opinions. Not until very recently, have I learned to speak directly using openings like “let’s try this.” Now I try to gauge how strongly a person feels about a particular subject before making my own internal conclusions.
Indirect communicators, especially those who may be introverted, tend to avoid confrontation. Because of this, we can be overpowered by direct communicators and become trapped in the miscommunications mentioned above. The communication barriers I put on myself daily didn’t come from the “why” question itself; it came from my mistaking the intention of the question.
It’s amazing that if we change something as subtle as the way we say something, we can create a very different dynamic in a conversation. But in order to achieve successful communication, we need to be willing to adapt to others communication styles. Ultimately, we want to get the buy-in from other people. While adapting to others’ behavioral styles is not easy, the rewards can be huge.