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Behavioral Style: Understanding Communication Styles Can Advance Your Relationships--and Your Career Prospects, Part 2

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

This column continues a series I started in last month's Tooling Up. If you haven't yet read Part One, I would suggest you do so before continuing, because it deals with the first measure upon which behavioral scientists determine a person's behavioral style: Open versus Reserved. In this second and final chapter, I'd like to describe the other measure that is considered in this process and then assist you in placing yourself into one of the four quadrants that result from the two intersecting measures.

As I described in Part One, these four categories aren't representative of "personality" but instead provide an indication of our preferred method of communication. Knowing that our colleagues and the people we meet each have a unique view of how this process should proceed teaches us that we need to be flexible. After all, communication is a two-way street, and if we can pave that street for an improved flow, so much the better. But even when you recognize these differences in communication style, you have to incorporate this knowledge into your daily behavior. That's where I went wrong last week.

One of our new client companies has a human resources (HR) manager with whom we must negotiate before moving on to talk to the hiring manager. When I got back in touch with her after submitting our proposal, I made the mistake of basing my communication style on my knowledge of other HR people. In her voicemail, the HR manager had mentioned a "serious concern" with our proposal. This led me to believe that the call was, like many of my previous HR experiences, a prelude to a discussion about lowering our company's fee.

When I returned her call, she listened patiently to the many reasons I gave as to why we couldn't lower the fee. Then she expressed her actual concern--that our proposal made her our primary contact at the firm instead of the hiring manager. She told me how important it would be for us to develop a relationship with the director of research and that she would support that effort (music to my ears). As I listened to this mild-mannered and caring person tell me about her role in the company, I could tell that she was not the typical HR person playing hardball. Doubtless, she had cringed as I launched into my tough-guy negotiator mode, because her communication style is totally on another plane from that one. And I could have known this in advance--and responded accordingly--simply by taking clues from our earlier conversations.

Direct versus Indirect? It's a Matter of Pace

Now that you know how miscues in the communication style area can affect your professional relationships, let's get back to those intersecting scales and the second measure you'll need to evaluate to properly understand communication styles. This measure indicates how people relate to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and whether they are likely to forge ahead or seek security.

The person who falls at the indirect end of this scale is slow-paced and security conscious. For example, someone who is indirect is unlikely to take the social initiative to introduce themselves at a party. They are less confronting and generally would prefer a conversation with a friend in a quiet corner. In science, an indirect person tends to be very deliberate--he or she may occasionally be referred to as a "plodder." But these same people are generally able to provide very accurate, carefully thought-out results. In general, their craving for security makes risk-taking too much like rocking the boat. They are usually the last ones to engage in any kind of lab politics.

The person at the direct end of this scale is fast-paced and assertive. You may know them as "Type A." Their indirect colleagues often perceive them as competitive and controlling. In a business or scientific meeting, these people will make emphatic points and speak a bit louder than other participants. They are sometimes quite argumentative and typically maintain their position in an argument far longer than most. These scientists are not afraid to take risks, but they may also get into difficulty by being inflexible about others' opinions of the results.

Just as you did in Part One with the Open versus Reserved scale, place yourself along this ''directness" scale. Are you very, very indirect (to the left on the scale), or are you extremely direct (all the way to the right)? Remember that there is no right or wrong decision here. You just have to be honest with yourself.

Where the Two Scales Meet

Take a look at the figure, and you'll see that the two intersecting scales describe four categories of communication styles. By now you have made marks on each of the scales; what you need to do next is to draw a line between those marks so that it passes through the intervening quadrant: the Relator, the Socializer, the Thinker, or the Director. The quadrant that your line passes through is the behavioral category into which your communication style falls. The people you work with, however, may see you a little differently than you see yourself. So ask a few of your lab mates who have read this series where they think you fall on both the Direct vs. Indirect and the Open vs. Reserved scales.    


Let's take a look at some of the specific characteristics of each behavioral style and determine the type of communication that would work best for each. It should be your goal to start recognizing these traits in those you deal with regularly and in new contacts you make during the job-seeking process:

The Relator:This quadrant is dominated by a slower pace (Indirect) and a relationships-oriented approach (Open). The Relator scientist is exceptionally easy to work with and good at cooperating with others. You can spot a Relator in the lab by the presence of personal items: photos, plants, and objects that create an informal atmosphere. In industry, a Relator is likely to strive for a happy team rather than a task-oriented group.Tips:When communicating with Relators, remember to slow your pace to match theirs. It's also useful to keep bringing the conversation back to how your issue will affect the personal interrelationships of those who are involved. The last thing you want to do with a Relator is to come off pushy or aggressive.The Socializer:This quadrant indicates both a desire to build relationships (Open) and a fast-paced, aggressive approach (Direct). Socializers are fun, always a bit playful, even in the lab. Their general interests run toward interacting with others rather than playing the loner. They will literally run out of the laboratory if caught up in some boring task or if by chance they end up being alone. A Socializer is usually quite talkative but works well with others--and quite quickly, although he or she may shift from one activity to another more often than the manager likes.Tips:To communicate with a Socializer, remember their need for personal prestige and for acceptance. These folks tend to make decisions in an almost spontaneous fashion, with what they and others feel is "intuition."The Thinker:This is the quadrant dominated by a slower pace (Indirect) and a closed personal style (Reserved). Thinkers see themselves as efficient and place a high value on thoroughness and precision. Their laboratory space is neat and structured. These scientists take an analytical approach to their work, and they prefer to solve problems at a slow, cautious pace. They are typically computer-oriented and enjoy getting the data into shape, which managers sometimes see as excessive reliance on the PC.Tips:Communication with the Thinker should take place at their slower pace, with a good deal of emphasis on showing proof. Approaching this person with ideas for changes in his or her department or project should be accompanied with facts and data about how the change would move the project along to the next step.The Director:The quadrant dominated by a fast pace (Direct) and by an almost nonexistent concern for relationships (Reserved) is for Directors, who are often best known for their aggressive, competitive natures. It is difficult to find a Director scientist in a laboratory because they work so hard to get out of the lab--they feel much more comfortable in the corner office! Directors can be depended on to get results, but they may be criticized for having too little concern about the effect of those results on the feelings of others.Tips:Communicating with Directors is best done at their quick pace, with an emphasis on getting right to the point. Avoid chitchat, always see things from their viewpoint, and show how your ideas will move the project toward the Director's goals.

In Conclusion

Had I spent a few minutes thinking about that HR manager's style, I would have recognized that she is a Relator. She gave me a great clue when we first met: As she described her company, she stressed the low turnover and the extent to which the company cared about its employees--a prime clue to the importance of relationships for this Relator. By comparison, a Director manager might have stressed the productivity and patent portfolio of the firm. A Socializer HR manager would have told me about their Friday afternoon wine and cheese parties, and a Thinker would have shown me printouts and charts of the company's stock performance over the last year!

As you think about this process, remember that good communication is not something you do to someone. It is interactive, and thus it requires a commitment from both parties. So, if you can steer your communication toward a style that the other person can relate to, the entire process is facilitated.

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