Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Behavioral Style: Understanding Communication Styles Can Advance Your Relationships—and Your Career Prospects

Have you ever met someone whom you liked instantly? Or, just the opposite, a person who makes you want to run in the other direction? Either way, these feelings are a part of your behavioral style intuition. We all—unconsciously—seek out others who have a similar style to our own, and we can all tell—again unconsciously—who has such a style and who doesn't. The secret to success, then, is to be flexible enough to understand and appreciate others' styles. But before you can do this, you'll have to determine what your own style is, and how that style might come across to others.

Scientists often work in physically close environments. ... In some labs, postdocs and grad students are packed in at the bench like so many sardines in a tin. And although you might think that working in close proximity with others would give scientists a better-than-average understanding of interpersonal relationships and communication styles, this isn't always the case. In fact, many technical people are interested more in what they can see down their microscopes than in how they interact with the people around them.

As a consultant in the world of employment, you can take it from me that avoiding these matters can damage your long-term career interests, to say nothing of your own relationships . Don't think so? Well, check the sidebar for an example from the job-seeking world:

Recruiter: "Can you tell me, Dr. Smith, what you liked and didn't like about our candidate Alice whom you met today?"

Dr. Smith: "Well, she certainly isn't going to receive an offer from us. I found her to be quite the opposite of what we are looking for."

Recruiter: "I'm confused. Alice has exactly the set of skills that you told me you were seeking. What happened?"

Dr. Smith: "She did a fairly good job in her seminar, but in her individual meetings she had all the personality of a cinder block. She did OK with one or two of our technical staff, but in my meeting with her she appeared wooden and disinterested, and I had similar feedback from my boss. In this job, we need a person who can communicate up and down different levels of staff."

Your Behavioral and Communication Style:

Why It Matters and What It Means

In this two-part series, it is my goal to help you understand and appreciate your own behavioral style, and to show you how it fits in with those of others. First, however, it is important that you understand that I am not talking about "personality" per se. I won't, for example, be describing the Myers Briggs definitions or anything that labels you or your colleagues in a positive or negative way. Instead, I hope to show you your natural communication type and discuss how others perceive your words and your deeds. While each of us has a particular style that we tend to fall back upon, a person who can adapt their own style to the way in which others naturally want to communicate is seen as a great benefit to any organization.

In Part One, I will describe the first measure—"open" versus "reserved"—by which your communication style is determined. In Part Two, I'll add the final measure. Then I'll graph the resulting communication styles so that you can determine which style is your natural one.

No matter whose work you study on this topic, you're bound to find that they ascribe individuals to one of four distinct communication styles. Hippocrates got the ball rolling with his "four temperaments." Carl Jung later described them as "Thinker, Feeler, Intuitor, and Sensor." Today, management consultants and trainers from different communications training programs use a variety of different names for the same categories. Wilson Learning Systems, for example, has for many years described these four "Social Styles" as "Analytical, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive." Another well-known pair of trainers, Jim Cathcart and Tony Allessandra, refer to the categories as "Thinkers, Directors, Relators, and Socializers." I like Jim and Tony's labels, and refer you to their excellent Nightingale-Conant cassette course if you would like to learn more about communication styles.

I remember how I felt when I was first exposed to these four categories. I felt that people were being pigeonholed into tight little boxes to provide a paycheck for the consultants. But as I studied and read other material written over the years, it began to make sense. You can indeed study the habits and communications styles of people and place them into four tidy little boxes. And it has sure paid off for me to understand this. I'm in a people business—knowing how and why people communicate the way they do has made a world of difference for me over the years.

Are You Open or Reserved?

Our first measure of communication style is the scale of "openness" exhibited by a person. Are you an open or reserved person? An open person is one who readily expresses emotions, thoughts, and feelings without holding back in any way. Generally, you can spot an open person in the lab or in a social situation very easily. In fact, if you are a more reserved person, sometimes it can come as a bit of a shock how open some people really are. You'll be riding up in an elevator, and by the sixth floor you will know some intimate detail of the person's life who shared that ride with you. Or, you'll be talking to a new lab mate and find yourself privy to some of that person's most private feelings and experiences—just a few minutes into the conversation. Open people want to be comfortable before getting down to business; they are willing to reach out and touch. They will use a lot of eye contact and expression to communicate. To them, there is nothing more important than establishing good interpersonal relationships.

By contrast, a person at the opposite end of the scale would be called reserved. A reserved person takes a while to get to know. Unlike an open person, who tends to be freely expressive, the reserved person will hold back on disclosing anything that might give clues to their inner nature. Reserved individuals are most comfortable when keeping a certain distance in their interpersonal relationships. Watch how much further back they stand when talking to you, or when you shake hands for the first time.

In this measure, everyone falls somewhere on a scale from 1 ("very reserved") to 10 ("very open"). What you need to do is to place yourself on this scale, and we'll next position this vertical line alongside the horizontal measure that I'll introduce in my next Tooling Up column. The two lines will intersect to create four distinct zones on a graph, one for each communication style.

But because the value of Part One won't become obvious until you've completed the exercises in Part Two, let me give you something to take with you today--an important concept to think about as you prepare to improve your interpersonal relationships:

The Golden Rule is wrong!

As you know, the Golden Rule tells us to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. Sounds very nice, but do you think that the reserved person really wants to be treated in the same way as the open person? No way! So what you have to do is to remember the spirit of the Golden Rule as opposed to the letter: Treat others as their style indicates they would like to be treated.


Jim Cathcart and Tony Allessandra, Relationship Strategies, audiocassettes from Nightingale Conant Corporation, Chicago, 1984. 800-525-9000.

Wilson Learning Corp., Social Styles Seminar Series, training available through Wilson Learning Systems, Eden Prairie, MN. 800-328-7937.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers