Research shows that each of us develops a preference for communicating in a certain manner, commonly referred to as a communication style. Understanding communication style is an important first step in learning how to communicate effectively with others. What’s My Communication Style provides insight into our everyday communication with others.
This assessment is appropriate for individuals at any organizational level who want to discover more about themselves and their communication preferences, including their communication style’s inherent strengths and trouble spots.
Individuals identify their preference for one of four communication styles using a 24-item assessment. The instructor-led program then helps participants understand the various forms of communication and learn how to “flex” their own personality style to improve communication.
Based on the well-researched personality theories of psychologists Carl Jung, William Moulton Marston, and others, What’s My Communication Style defines communication style with four terms: Direct, Spirited, Considerate, and Systematic. The simplicity of the model makes it easy for trainers to facilitate and memorable for individuals. The result is a tool that boosts individuals’ ability to improve the effectiveness of their communication in any situation.
Understanding Personality Style
What makes people act as they do? Why does one person jump at the chance to do a public presentation, while another person avoids it? Why does one person focus on details, while another focuses on general impressions? What drives our actions has been a constant topic of debate. In the past, researchers were clearly divided into two camps: those who believed that personality style determined behavior and those who believed that the situation determined behavior. Those on the style side of the debate argued that personality traits are stable, consistent predispositions to act in a certain way (Wheeless & Lashbrook, 1987). For example, if you are outgoing, you will probably enjoy and excel in public speaking situations. Those on the situation side of the debate argued that people are inconsistent. For example, a person might be open and intimate with friends but closed and professional at work. Situational theorists believed that predictions of behavior are more accurate if based on the situation rather than on personality (Mischel, 1996).
To a certain extent, the debate over personality style versus situation was misleading. Many early studies on the subject were conducted in laboratory settings with severe constraints. Subjects in those experiments did not choose their situations and were limited in their choice of behaviors.
Snyder and Ickes (1985) offered a synthesis of those two previous views, arguing that people’s personality styles determine the situations in which they find themselves. For example, an outgoing person would be more likely than an introverted person to choose a public speaking situation. This view suggests that personality style and situation work together in determining behavior.
Even if people have no choice in the situations they encounter, they react to any situation with a limited set of behaviors (Bem, 1983). Although people’s behavior will alter as the situation changes, their set of behaviors from which to choose is not infinite, and they will display the behaviors within a behavioral set as determined by the circumstances. For example, not everyone is capable of being analytical in situations that call for analysis, but people will choose the best behavioral adjustment from among their set of possible behaviors. This set of possible behavioral reactions is a product of their personality style.
The results of another study spanning 50 years further support this view that personality traits are stable across time but also malleable to some extent as people mature and age due to genetic and environmental influences (Hopwood et al., 2012, as cited in Damian, Spengler, Sutu & Roberts, 2018).
Although debate may continue over the degree of influence personality plays in behavior, we can conclude that it is a significant component. In particular, personality style takes over when individuals have options in both their behavior and their environment.
We define personality style as the way people act when they are able to do things their own way. Does this mean that people act the same way all the time? Certainly not. Even the most boisterous individual would not be loud and jovial at a funeral. But behavior is consistent to the point that it is predictable. For example, everyone acts friendly sometimes. However, when a person acts friendly more than the average person, others start to consider friendliness part of that person’s personality and expect friendly behavior from them most of the time.
“What makes people act as they do? Why does one jump at the chance to do a public presentation, while another person avoids it? Why does one person focus on facts, while another focuses on broad impressions?”
The Importance of Personality Style
Personality style affects our interactions with others (Hunsaker & Alessandra, 2008), and it is important in several aspects of organizational and personal life. People with different styles have different priorities and function at different paces. These differences can create problems if they remain under the surface. If Joe is slow and thorough and Jane is fast and decisive, their working relationship will be stressful unless they are aware of each other’s preferences. Knowledge of personality styles prevents misunderstandings and frustration.
Understanding personality style allows us to interpret the actions of others in a nonjudgmental way (Snavely, 1981). If we are aware of another person’s typical behaviors, we can take these behaviors into account when interpreting the other person’s actions. For example, if Fred is generally a friendly and outgoing person, the fact that he gives you an enthusiastic hello should not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of deep friendship. If, on the other hand, Fred is a private person, his enthusiastic hello might be a sign of deep friendship. The knowledge of personality style allows you to understand the behaviors of others; it enables you to accurately attach meaning to the reactions of those around you. Most importantly, you will be able to react appropriately within your own behavior set to the reactions of others and better manage the communication exchange.
Using your knowledge of personality style to understand others better begins by understanding yourself. People who understand their own style will fare better than those who proceed as if all people are the same. For example, if you are aware that you prefer logical, straightforward assignments, you should seek work in such an environment. If you thrive on working with people, you should choose a position in which you interact frequently with others.
Two Dimensions of Personality Style
The concept and basic dimensions of style date back to Carl Jung’s 1914 work (Jung, 1971). Jung was the first person to describe the traits of introversion and extraversion. Since then, many researchers have examined personality style and further developed Jung’s ideas (e.g., Marston, 1979; Merrill & Reid, 1999; Schutz, 1966). One clear finding of this research is that the number of styles is not unlimited. Each individual is unique, but there are definite categorical commonalities. In fact, research indicates two basic dimensions of personality style, which we have chosen to refer to as assertiveness and expressiveness.
Assertiveness is the effort that a person makes to influence or control the thoughts or actions of others. People who are assertive tell others how things should be and are task oriented, active, and confident. People who are less assertive ask others how things should be and are process oriented, deliberate, and attentive.
Expressiveness is the effort that a person makes to control their emotions when relating to others. People who are expressive display their emotions and are versatile, sociable, and demonstrative. People who are less expressive control their emotions and are focused, independent, and private.
The HRDQ Style Model
Personality style is determined by a person’s degree of assertiveness and expressiveness. In fact, the various combinations of the degrees of assertiveness and expressiveness result in four possible personality styles. Different names have been given to these styles by various researchers (see, e.g., Alessandra & Hunsaker, 1993; Wheeless & Lashbrook, 1987), but we have chosen to label them Direct, Spirited, Considerate, and Systematic.
These styles are the basis of the HRDQ Style Model.
Understanding Communication Style
Communication is one manifestation of personality style. The essence of communication is sending and receiving a message. While this sounds simple, frequently, the message that is intended is not the message that is received. One reason this misunderstanding occurs is that the sender and receiver have two different personality styles, meaning they share and interpret messages in two different ways. For example, the sender may intend to communicate a supportive message by saying, “I’d like to help you,” but the receiver may misinterpret the message as one of being told they are incapable. To complicate matters, communication is more than just the spoken word. There are four forms of communication: verbal, paraverbal (tone of voice and intensity), body language, and personal space.
- VERBAL: Words themselves may be open to misunderstanding. Differences in age, experience, and background can result in different interpretations of the same statement.
- PARAVERBAL: It’s not just the words but how people say them that affect meaning. This is called paraverbal communication and includes how quickly a person speaks and pauses, as well as voice tone and intensity. For example, trailing off or lowering your voice can be a sign/signal that it is the other party’s turn to speak in a conversation.
- BODY LANGUAGE: The way people stand, shake hands, and maintain eye contact are all forms of body language that communicate meaning to others. Body language can communicate attentiveness, emotions, and reactions. Facial expressions are another form of body language. The cliché “it’s written all over your face” describes it perfectly: facial expressions can reveal the listener’s response to what the speaker is saying even before the listener responds in words.
Body language is heavily influenced by communication style. Preferences for eye contact, gesturing, and touch are usually quite pronounced, and it is easier to read other people’s body language messages if you know their dominant style.
- PERSONAL SPACE: The final form of communication is the use of personal space, which includes not only the space between you and others but also your personal appearance, your choice of decorations, and how you arrange your workspace. Interpersonal distance, or how close people are physically to one another, has been studied extensively, and researchers have outlined four zones of interpersonal distance: intimate, personal, social, and public. How close you prefer to be to others in all of these zones is a function of your communication style. Whether your work or home space is cluttered or neat, organized or disorganized, is also a function of your communication style.
Communication Style Characteristics
All these forms of communication are demonstrated in different ways, depending on your personality style. In other words, your personality style determines the characteristics you exhibit when you communicate. The chart below shows how each communication style influences the different forms of communication. Knowing your own style and its characteristics and recognizing others’ styles and their characteristics will go a long way toward minimizing misunderstandings and increasing the effectiveness of your communication.
- DIRECT: Decisive / Direct speech / Doesn’t stop to say hello
- SPIRITED: Generalizes / Persuasive / Expresses opinions readily
- CONSIDERATE: Listens / Close, personal language / Supportive language
- SYSTEMATIC: Precise language / Avoids emotions / Focuses on specific details
- DIRECT: Speaks quickly / Loud tones / Formal speech
- SPIRITED: Loud tones / Animated / Lots of voice inflection
- CONSIDERATE: Speaks slowly / Soft tones / Patient speech
- SYSTEMATIC: Even delivery / Brief speech / Little vocal variety
- DIRECT: Direct eye contact / Bold visual appearance / Firm handshake
- SPIRITED: Quick actions / Lots of body movement / Enthusiastic handshake
- CONSIDERATE: Slow movement / Likes hugging / Gentle handshake
- SYSTEMATIC: Poker face / Avoids touching / Controlled movement
- DIRECT: Keeps physical distance / Work space suggests power / Displays planning calendars in work space
- SPIRITED: Cluttered work space / Personal slogans in office / Likes close physical space
- CONSIDERATE: Displays family pictures in work space / Likes side-by-side seating / Carries sentimental items
- SYSTEMATIC: A strong sense of personal space / Charts, graphs in office / Tidy desktop
It is important to note that these characteristics are based primarily on Western culture—the US in particular—and as such, may not be completely accurate across all cultures. An example of this is eye contact—in Western culture, prolonged eye contact is an appropriate use of body language to show that you are paying attention to the speaker and is considered a clear indicator of someone with the Direct communication style. However, in some other cultures, any kind of prolonged eye contact is considered disrespectful, so you are unlikely to notice anyone making use of it and it would not be a useful indicator of the Direct communication style.
It’s also important to recognize that there is a difference between characteristics and stereotypes. What we identify in this program are characteristics. There is some link between nationality and personality (Jarrett, 2017). However, when we go down this route, it is easy to stereotype and assume that because someone is a particular nationality, they will hold a preference for a certain style—without taking the time to observe that person’s unique set of behaviors. To avoid stereotyping, stick to using only the characteristics recognized in this program to identify style and observe those characteristics rather than assume someone has them because of their nationality.
Communication Style Strengths
Each communication style has definite strengths. Knowledge of these strengths allows people to draw on them as needed and to find situations in which their strengths are a benefit. Knowledge of the strengths of others allows people to anticipate reactions and adapt their style to respond appropriately.
Direct people take charge of their lives. They prefer to be in control and are decisive in their actions. Direct people thrive on competition. They enjoy the challenge of a fight but enjoy the win even more. They maintain a fast pace as they work single-mindedly on their goals. Direct people are good in positions of authority that require independence. They possess strong leadership skills and get things done. They are not afraid to take risks to get what they want.
Gets to the bottom line - Prefers to be in control - Speaks forcefully - Tends to be decisive
Maintains eye contact - Thrives on competition - Presents position strongly - Likes to take risks
Spirited people are enthusiastic and friendly. They prefer to be around other people and thrive in the spotlight. They are able to generate motivation and excitement in others because of their positive focus and lively nature. Spirited people work at a fast pace because they prefer stimulation and are well suited to high-profile positions in which public presentations are important. They are spontaneous people who are quick and take decisive action. They excel at building alliances and using relationships to accomplish work.
Likes to be persuasive - Prefers to be with other people - Tends to be a good storyteller - Works at a fast pace
Focuses on the big picture - Builds strong alliances - Uses motivational speech - Generates enthusiasm
Considerate people value warm, personal relationships. They have good counseling skills, and others go to them because they are good listeners. Considerate people are cooperative and enjoy being part of a team. They are reliable and steady, and they are always aware of others’ feelings. They work best in an environment in which teamwork is essential. They are well suited for any profession that requires them to care for others.
Listens well - Values relationships - Is a good counselor - Enjoys being part of a team - Builds trust
Uses supportive language - Cares for others - Tends to be reliable and steady
Systematic people are accurate and objective. They prefer to make decisions based on facts, not emotions. Systematic people rely on data and are excellent problem solvers. They tend to be persistent in their analyses, maintaining a critical focus throughout their work. Systematic people are orderly and prefer to work in an organized environment with clear guidelines. They thrive in task-oriented positions that require independent work.
Presents precisely - Makes decisions based on facts - Seeks information - Excels at problem solving
Speaks efficiently - Prefers clear guidelines - Likes a well-organized work space - Works independently
Communication Style Trouble Spots
Just as each style has strengths, each style also has potential trouble spots. These trouble spots stem from the simple fact that any good thing can become a problem if taken to an extreme.
Direct people may cross the line from controlling to overbearing. They like to get things done quickly. However, they might overlook fine details that can lead to mistakes. Direct people are not necessarily good at focusing on feelings and tend to discount them as unimportant. They tend to view situations as competitive, making those around them uncomfortable and tense.
Is a poor listener - Likes to compete - Is impatient with others - Discounts feelings - Does not heed advice
Overlooks details - Likes to argue - Tends to be a workaholic
Spirited people tend to intensify their verbal behavior. They might exaggerate a story for effect or respond to criticism with verbal attacks. They also tend to generalize when outlining an idea, glossing over important details that might diminish enthusiastic support. Spirited people are rarely concerned with deadlines and may not manage their time effectively.
Does not hear details - Responds poorly to criticism - Tends to exaggerate - Glosses over details - Generalizes
Tends to miss deadlines - Can be overdramatic - Does not manage time efficiently
Considerate people tend to avoid change and prefer to do what is comfortable. They dislike conflict, often telling others what they think they want to hear. They have wants and needs that can linger under the surface until they become resentful. Interactions with others can become tense as a result.
Avoids conflict - Prefers what is comfortable - Gives in easily - Allows own needs to linger unaddressed
Keeps opinions to self - Resists change - Overemphasizes feelings - Tells others what they want to hear
Systematic people may continually seek more information to make them feel confident. Their need for facts and data can delay decision making. They are uncomfortable with emotions and avoid expressing them at all costs. Systematic people tend to put quality and accuracy ahead of feelings, even if it might hurt others, and are often perceived as impersonal.
Focuses too much on details - Puts accuracy ahead of feelings - Fears personal disclosure - Tends to be impersonal
Can be terse - Delays decision making - Uses little variety in vocal tones - Does not take risks
Reading Communication Style
Studies have found that the most common reason for ineffective communication is a difference in communication style (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018). For example, a Spirited person and a Systematic person may have tense interactions because of the different speeds at which they make decisions. Although each of us has a predominant personality style that drives our behavior and our communication, the ability to “flex,” or make adjustments in our own behavior to accommodate another style, helps increase the likelihood of efficient and effective communication. The first step to accomplish this is to learn how to identify another person’s style. Figure 3 shows how to quickly identify another person’s communication style.
- DIRECT - Gets to the point
- SPRITED - Tells good stories
- CONSIDERATE - Doesn’t offer opinions
- SYSTEMATIC - Precise
- DIRECT - Poor listener
- SPRITED - Doesn't hear details
- CONSIDERATE - Sympathetic listener
- SYSTEMATIC - Seeks facts
- DIRECT - Firm
- SPRITED - Enthusiastic
- CONSIDERATE - Gentle
- SYSTEMATIC - Brief
- DIRECT - Maintains distance
- SPRITED - Likes to be close
- CONSIDERATE - Likes hugging
- SYSTEMATIC - Avoids touching
- DIRECT - Bold
- SPRITED - Quick
- CONSIDERATE - Slow
- SYSTEMATIC - Controlled
- DIRECT - Suggests power
- SPRITED - Cluttered
- CONSIDERATE - Displays photos
- SYSTEMATIC - Tidy
Flexing Communication Style
It takes willingness and effort for people to expand beyond their own style to interact with others. It is not only appreciated but may also make the difference between success and failure in an interaction. In general, aim to communicate in a way that focuses on the other person’s style strengths and minimizes their trouble spots. Figure 4 shows how to help people improve their communication with any style.
DIRECT • Focus on their goals and objectives • Keep your relationship businesslike • Argue facts, not personal feelings • Be well organized in your presentations • Ask questions directly • Speak at a relatively fast pace
SPIRITED • Focus on opinions and inspiring ideas • Be supportive of their ideas • Don’t hurry the discussion • Engage in brainstorming • Be entertaining and upbeat • Allow them to share their ideas freely
SYSTEMATIC • Focus on facts, not opinions • Be thorough and organized • Provide data when possible • Be precise in your presentations • Avoid gimmicks • Allow time for analysis
CONSIDERATE • Focus on your relationship • Be supportive of their feelings • Make sure you understand their needs • Be informal • Maintain a relaxed pace • Give them time to build trust in you
For a comprehensive insight in the development of What's My Communication Style, we invite you to read the full Theory Background.
Open the WMCS Theory Background PDF