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My favorite communication hack

  • August 9, 2021

I’m about to unleash one of the most impactful communication tools I’ve ever used in my professional life—speak to people the way they want to be spoken to. Let’s open with a story:

Speak to someone they way they want to be spoken to

There was this administrative assistant at my old job; let’s call her Diane. Diane was a new hire, and reported directly to me, but she assisted both me and my boss. She demonstrated great respect for my boss (an older man) but didn’t seem to enjoy taking assignments from me. Every time I asked her to do something, it was a struggle. Her attitude was sour, she complained or found fault with my requests, and was generally unpleasant to deal with.

At this time in my life, I was in college while working full-time. In my Organizational Behavior class, we covered a variety of personality tests (like the MBTI), where I studied both my personality and how to communicate more effectively with people who aren’t like me. Case in point—I learned that my desire for inclusion is as low as it gets on the scale. It turns out I don’t care much whether I’m needed or wanted. Those with a high need strongly desire to feel included—and I had several members on my team who I knew felt like this. To make sure they felt valued, I’d go out of my way to join them for lunch or stop by their desk to say hi.

Going back to Diane, I suspected our personalities and communication styles were at the root of this issue, as I didn’t have the same friction with anyone else who worked for me. So, I started paying attention, observing her in other interactions. I noticed she liked to feel in charge of her space and tasks, like a subject matter expert. Her work and role were important—and I realized many executives throughout the company didn’t treat her that way. She bragged about her grandkids often, and mentioned much she loved to watch them.

I decided to try something new. I had an enormous binder that needed copying—a task that was firmly in her job description, but that I was considering doing myself just so I didn’t have to deal with her grumpiness. But this time, I approached Diane with a different communication style. Instead of saying, “Hi Diane, I need this binder copied by Friday, please,” I took a fresh approach.

“Hi Diane,” I said. “Paul gave me this huge binder, and it needs to be copied, but it’s super messy. It’s for that huge case he’s working on—I’m sure you know all about it. Do you think you could help me figure out how to organize it, and make a copy once you have it just the way you want it? He needs it by Friday, though, and it’s a pretty big project.”

Diane sat up straighter in her chair. “I can certainly help, yes,” she said. “I do know how important that case is. Leave it with me.” I replied with gratitude, “Thank you so much. I knew you would know what to do. Let me know when you’re done, but please take it straight to Paul so he knows who did the work.” I dropped the binder on her desk and gave myself a silent self-five.

Check your ego for effective communication

My communications with Diane (and our combined job performance) ran smoothly from there on out. All it took was for me to flex my communication preference and speak to Diane the way she wanted to be spoken to. You see, Diane was a HELPER. She liked to feel needed. She didn’t want to feel like she was taking orders, she wanted to truly feel of service. And I needed to demonstrate in my dealings with Diane that her work was mission-critical to all of our jobs, and brought real value to the group’s results. (I always believed that, but my uber-direct communication style wasn’t showing it.) Once I recognized this, the only thing left was to get out of my own way and approach her with a fresh mindset.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it felt contrived and fake to “strategize” how I was going to approach her, and sometimes I was frustrated that I had to play to her tendency rather than just being myself. But guess what? That binder came back color-tabbed, organized, and ten times neater than if I had just asked her to copy it. And when I really thought about it, how effective of a manager would I be if every time I made a request, there was friction and resistance? How would that reflect back on me in MY performance reviews? Plus, after that first project, I realized my actions had a huge payoff. If I was willing to check my ego and speak to Diane the way she wanted to be spoken to, I could make her feel valued and appreciated at work every single day.

All it took was some careful observation, a little flexibility, and the understanding that in order to serve the greater good, I just had to bend.

If you’re in a position of influence, whether you manage people at work or promote change leading an online community, here is the lesson: You can speak to people however you please, but being flexible in how you say might be more effective at reaching the people you’re trying to reach. It’s always your choice… but think about your end goal. Is it more important for you to stay true to YOUR preferred communication style, or is it more important that your message be received and implemented effectively?

If it’s the latter, you’re going to need to learn how to be flexible. Softer where you’re usually direct. Direct where you may tend to be soft. Add more context where you’d normally be brief. Be more concise where you’d normally offer a back-story. It depends on who you’re talking to, and you may need an observation period and a few different techniques before you find the one that works best, but if you’re willing to check your ego and flex your communication style, you’ll be amazed at how much more effective you’ll be at influencing change.


P.S. I must point out that this concept is very different than “tone policing,” where someone else tells you how you should be communicating in tone, voice, language, body language, etc. Tone policing happens often to women, especially women of color, and it’s harmful and just plain wrong. Choosing to flex your communication style is a conscientious internal decision you make to adjust your own tone, manner, or language in the name of accomplishing your goals. YOU are the one deciding if, where, when, and how this technique is employed based on your own motivations, not out of deference to someone else.

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