The 4 workplace communication styles: How to decode what your coworkers are (actually) saying

It’s probably safe to say you’ve left at least one meeting, call, or customer visit and thought to yourself “what the heck was that person even talking about?”

Clear and effective communication is one of the easiest ways to reduce workplace stress, boost productivity, and build better relationships with your coworkers. But dealing with communication styles different than your own can sometimes feel like trying to get across to an alien species.

As Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian writes:

“The differences between communication styles often cause more agony than they really need to.”

We all benefit from working with diverse people with different opinions. But to take advantage of everything they have to offer, we have to start speaking the same language.

Let’s take a look at some of the easiest ways to understand different communication styles at work and how you can make sure you’re being heard, no matter who you’re talking to.

Aggressive vs. passive? Competitive vs. Affiliative? DISC? What’s up with all these different communication styles?

Despite studies saying we spend up to 80% of our workday in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, communication in the workplace isn’t always easy. Or enjoyable.

In fact, a 2016 Harvard Business Review article found that 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees. (And you can only imagine that number is significantly higher when the roles are reversed!)

The majority of the pain of workplace encounters comes down to dealing with (and decoding) different communication styles. Dealing with people who speak differently than you is straight up stressful. Not only does it waste time with all the clarifying back-and-forths, but it often leaves us feeling upset, angry, and overwhelmed.

So how do we try and sort through the mess of workplace communication?

While everyone communicates differently, most of us fall into a few different buckets when it comes to our preferred communication style. But even understanding those styles is a challenge in itself!

Do a basic Google search of communication styles and you’re bound to come up with a few takes.

There are the classics: Assertive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and passive.

Then you have a more linguistic approach, which places competitive against affiliative communicators and direct vs. indirect.

Finally, there’s even something called DISC (which stands for Dominant, Influencer, Steady, and Conscientious).

The problem with all these approaches, however, is that it’s easier to see their qualities in ourselves than in others. Even worse, they don’t tell us much about how we should communicate with them. Especially if we’re a completely different style ourselves.

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A new way to think about communication styles at work

One better approach I like to use is the communication styles defined by best-selling author and leadership coach Mark Murphy: Analytical, Intuitive, Functional, and Personal.

Murphy’s approach focuses on the key information each style is looking for in a conversation and how you can best communicate with them.

As he explains:

“No one communication style is inherently better than another. But picking the wrong style for a particular audience, whether it’s one person or a thousand, shuts down listening and can spell trouble.

“Learning to build flexibility around your preferred style allows others to more successfully hear the important things you need to communicate.”

Let’s take a look at the qualities of each one of Murphy’s communication styles; what they’re good and bad for; and how to effectively communicate with someone who has a communication style different from you.

Analytical: Lovers of hard data and clearly defined tasks

Analytical communication style

As an analytical communicator, you love hard data, numbers, and specific language. As such, you’re usually wary of people who deal in vague language and strictly blue sky ideas and get drained quickly when conversations move from logical to emotional.

One example Murphy gives is of being in a meeting and hearing that “sales are positive.” According to him, an analytical communicator would likely think “what does positive mean? 5.2% or 8.9%? Give me a number!”

One clear advantage of being analytical is that communication is largely logical and unemotional, which can speed things up. However, the flip side is that you might come across as cold and aggravated when someone wants to talk about anything beyond just getting from A to B.

How to work with an analytical communication style:

Try to:

  • Provide as much detail upfront as possible
  • Set clear expectations
  • Give them space to work independently

Avoid:

  • Turning the conversation emotional (i.e. use “I know” or “I think” rather than “I feel”)
  • Framing feedback on their work (especially data-heavy work) as criticism

Intuitive: The big picture thinkers

Intuitive communication style

Intuitive communicators are on the opposite end of the spectrum from analytical ones.

Instead of data, details, and concrete steps, the intuitive communication style thrives on big-picture ideas. Linear order, step-by-step instructions, and deep dives into the details aren’t important. Instead, they’re more interested in broad overviews that allow them to skip directly to what’s most important.

This can be great if you’re having a conversation that needs a quick answer. Or if you’re looking for out-of-the-box approaches to issues. However, when nuance and subtlety matter, it can feel like trying to fix a Swiss watch with a hammer.

How to work with an intuitive communication style:

Try to:

  • Stick to the main topic and keep it high-level
  • Be prepared to answer follow-up questions
  • Keep details to a minimum (you can always follow up with these in an email after the conversation so they can reference back later on)

Avoid:

  • Too many details (obviously)
  • Taking their approach personally (they’re just doing what feels right to them)
  • Making too big promises (they’ll latch onto the big picture and ignore the details of how hard it might be to pull off)

Functional: Dealing with everything one step at a time

Functional communication style

As someone with a functional communication style, you love the process.

But maybe more than that, you love step-by-step guides, details, timelines, and thought through plans. When you’re talking to someone else, you want to go through each detail from start to finish to make sure nothing gets missed or glossed over.

Obviously, in the workplace, a functional communication style can be a huge benefit. For project managers or leaders, knowing all necessary steps puts you in a position to guide and lead. However, it can also make you a bit of a bore. Nothing makes an audience doze off like constantly digging into details and dealing with every project like it’s a grocery list.

How to work with a functional communication style:

Try to:

  • Practice “active listening” by repeating what they’ve said and asking follow-up questions
  • Expect them to ask for details, even if you’re just brainstorming

Avoid:

  • Rushing them to get to the end or make a decision
  • Assume they support an idea 100% (their criticism or feedback will often be on the steps, not the overall strategy)

Personal: Relationships over information exchange

Personal communication style

Finally, there’s the personal communicator. You value connection, relationships, and emotional language above all. When you dig into something you care as much (or more) about the person saying it as what they’re saying. You’re a good listener. Great diplomat. And often can help smooth over issues that more hard-lined communication styles cause.

You’re often seen as the “glue” that holds a team together. You build strong relationships and see communication as a chance to get to know people rather than just move a project forward.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t go over well with everyone. Other communication styles (like analytical) become defensive or frustrated when a conversation turns into “feels”.

How to work with a personal communication style:

Try to:

  • Keep conversations light and casual
  • Not get offended if they ask how something made you “Feel” or make a strictly work conversation personal
  • Follow up with important details and information by email after the meeting (they probably won’t focus on it too much during your initial conversation)

Avoid:

  • Talking down to them or being overly pessimistic (they pick up on “vibes” more than others)
  • Try to contain the conversation to just stats and facts
  • Pressure them to do a deep dive into the details with you

Communication is taking over the workplace. Understanding communication styles help you get heard.

We’ve written before about just how much communication is taking over the workplace. Knowledge workers, on average, check email or IM every 6 minutes, while most people barely have 1 hour and 12 minutes a day of focused, productive time without being distracted by communication tools.

(And that doesn’t even bring in-person meetings and phone calls into the picture.)

More and more, success comes down to our ability to communicate in a way that’s clear, concise, and understood by everyone.

This isn’t easy. But by understanding our own communication style and those of the people around us, we get invaluable clarity into how to be heard (and how to hear what everyone else is saying).

The more you’re able to speak the same language, the easier everything becomes.

Need more help controlling your communication time at work? Sign up for RescueTime for free and get in-depth insights on how much time you’re spending on email and IM. 

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

    1. They’re definitely very similar. Reading through the different ways people explain communication styles, I simply preferred Mark Murphy’s framing. I found them easier to understand both from a “What style am I/are my coworkers?” standpoint as well as “How do I best communicate with people with this style?” In the end, I can’t see myself using the titles in the workplace. But have definitely seen benefit from understanding the goals and approaches that work best for people with different communications styles.

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