Understanding Different Learning Styles

(This post was originally written by Morgan Browning for Inc.com)

Is there someone in the office that you just aren’t quite on the same page with? Maybe you walk away from every interaction feeling like you’ve offended that person or vice versa. Or you’re at a loss for words, or he won’t let you get a word in, or you just can’t quite put your finger on what’s going on between you. You know you want the same things for the company, but you’re just not able to connect.

It’s easy to shrug off one such instance of disconnect and tell ourselves that we’ll be in sync with that person the next time. Unfortunately, it might be just as easy to jump to the conclusion that we’re incompatible and give up on the relationship altogether. Over time, these simple, and often unintentional, misunderstandings can erode trust amongst coworkers and damage the team as a whole.

Diversity in behaviors is a major characteristic of high performing teams. The creative tension between behavioral differences is good and healthy for a group when it is accepted and harnessed for productive benefits.

So how do you build rapport with others whom you don’t always see eye-to-eye and embrace these differences in the workplace? It’s all about communication, which won’t surprise you. But even more specific than what you communicate, it’s about understanding how to communicate with another person given that person’s behavior preferences.

Here’s what I mean. At our communication-building workshops, we divide the participants into groups according to where their behavioral preferences fall on the scale for expressiveness, assertiveness and flexibility. We ask each group three questions: 1) What’s brilliant about being in this preference? 2) What are the challenges others may perceive of your preference? And 3) How do you want to be communicated with in the future?

The first two questions get the discussion going, but it’s when the groups share their answers to that third question–how do you want to be communicated with in the future?– that the “Aha!” moments start flying. For example, the gregarious individuals are, without fail, shocked that the introspective actually prefer listening to talking. Conversely, the reserved group had no idea that talking through an idea in a group setting can actually be beneficial for many people. These basic realizations seem to work wonders, as members from each group learn about themselves, and how best to communicate with others.

Just because we prefer to communicate one way certainly doesn’t mean the next person will, and the key to building rapport is flexing your behavioral style to match another’s. Here’s some insight as to how the opposite points on each behavior spectrum can understand how to communicate with each other:

Expressiveness Spectrum

Quiet: The reserved, introspective folks among us prefer to internally process information. They will generally feel comfortable and safe communicating once they have fully thought-through the information. If you ask reserved individuals to share their thoughts before they are ready, it will likely create disruptive tension.

Talkative: Gregarious, animated individuals tend to process information through talking, which means that oftentimes the first thing they say is not where they end up. Talking through a problem serves the same purpose for these folks as a more reserved person listening and thinking through an answer. Giving gregarious folks the space to “talk things out” is a crucial step towards getting a complete answer.

Assertiveness Spectrum

Peacekeepers: Generally people on this end of the assertiveness spectrum prefer not to be too direct, unless it is something deeply personal. Be OK with that, as they are simply showing respect to others’ viewpoints and prefer to move forward by building group consensus. A confrontational style can often derail this process and stall overall team momentum.

Driving: Hard-charging individuals prefer direct communication. Driving personalities view confrontation as a productive, healthy process to discover the best ideas for a given situation. When dealing with these individuals, peacekeepers can bridge the gap by simply saying what’s on their mind, regardless of any personal feelings involved.

Flexibility Spectrum

Focused: These individuals prefer to see things through to completion, once a decision is reached. For these individuals, there is a clear boundary between when it is the appropriate time for considering options and when it is time for implementation. When proposing a change, they would prefer that a clear and cogent argument is presented as to why this change is necessary before enacting any modifications.

Accommodating: These folks are most comfortable and accepting of ambiguity and believe that life is constantly changing. It is important to provide room for these individuals to explore their initial change ideas without disrupting the overall progress of the team. This practice will go a long way in building their support within the team and also ensure that all important alternatives are explored.

It’s easy to say “we need to communicate better,” but actually knowing how to do it is what matters. There will always be differences of opinion, but understanding how others prefer to be communicated with will go a long way in connecting with others and creating an efficient and productive environment.

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