Thursday, October 10, 2013

What to do when communication styles don't match

Just as people have different learning styles, each of us apparently has a different communication style according to this psychiatrist, best selling author and former FBI hostage negotiation trainer Dr. Mark Goulston.  Some of us are explainers/belaborers while others are venters/screamers and that each of these styles originates in deeply ingrained personality traits.  When you find yourself conversing with someone who doesn't share your same communication style, it's easy to get frustrated, annoyed or most likely you'll just tune them out which means there's no communication at all.  The trick, says Dr. Goulston in this post from the Harvard Business Review Blog, is to "listen around" their communication style which allows you to better focus on the message rather than the messenger through empathy and understanding.

What do to with a venter/screamer

If your conversational counterpart is a venter/screamer, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to tell them to calm down (which will only make them more upset), to shut down and get silent (which will only make them yell longer, because they’ll think you’re not listening), or to try to point out how irrational venting is (which, as noted above, they will perceive as patronizing and belaboring).

Instead, say to yourself, “Okay, here comes another temper tantrum.  Just let them blow.  Try not to take it between the eyes and imagine you’re looking into the calm eye of a hurricane and the storm is going over your shoulder.”

To do this, focus on their left eye. The left eye is connected to the right brain — the emotional brain.  Let them finish. Then say, “I can see you’re really frustrated. To make sure I don’t add to that,  and to make sure I don’t miss something, what was the most important thing I need to do in the long term, what’s the critical thing I need to do in the short term, and what do I need to get done ASAP?” Reframing the conversation this way, after they’ve finished venting, will make sure that your “explainer” self knows what to do – instead of ignoring the venting as another random outburst from “Conan the Barbarian” or “the Wicked Witch of the West.” Chances are, they do have something important they’re trying to tell you – even though they’re not communicating it very well.

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What to do with an explainer/belaborer

If your conversational counterpart is an explainer, your hardwired survival coping skill might be to say to yourself,  “Here they go again, make sure you smile politely even if you want to pull your hair out. Try not to let your impatience and annoyance show.” The problem with this is that even though they may be oblivious to others as they go on and on, at some level they may be aware of your underlying impatience and… that might actually make them talk longer. Yikes.

Realize that the reason they explain and belabor things is probably because their experience is that people don’t pay attention to what they say.  They don’t realize that while that may be true of some truly distracted people, for others, the reason they don’t pay attention is that the speaker is belaboring something that the listener already heard — and doesn’t want to hear over and over again.  Another possibility is that these explainers may not be feeling listened to somewhere else in their life (by their spouse, kids, parents, or boss) and is now  relieved to have you as a captive audience.

When the explainer goes into his explanation/lecture/filibuster, say to yourself, “Okay, this is going to take a while.”  Put a mental bookmark in whatever you were working on. Then look them in their left eye with a look that says, “Okay, take your time, I’m fully listening.” Instead of feeling frustrated and reacting by become impatient and fidgety, remind yourself, “They need to do this. I can be patient.”

Continue reading here.


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Hi Jennifer--I agree with you. Unless the venters and explainers are very good at what they do, I don't think they last very long in the practice. And congrats on your blog! Very high quality.

Posted by: Louis Sirico | Oct 14, 2013 1:23:34 PM

Thanks for posting this! This kind of conversation is *the* motivation for my new blog project, Listen Like a Lawyer at In terms of applying his ideas to law practice, do you think that the two big categories he identifies (venters and explainers) map neatly onto the legal field as well? My first reaction was yes, they certainly do.

Posted by: Jennifer Romig | Oct 13, 2013 3:11:36 PM

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