You Don’t Have a Communication Style

Old doors conceal a beautiful room once you have passed through their plane of influence.
Old doors conceal a beautiful room once you have passed through their plane of influence.
Pass through to a new way of thinking about “communication style.”

Lots of people believe in “communication styles.”

You shouldn’t.

Do humans have tendencies and sensitivities when communicating? Yes, definitely. We each have our own. But that does that mean you have a communication “style”? Nope.

Having a communication style is to have something you think you can’t change. And nothing, when it comes to communicating, is pre-determined. Style gives the idea that there is some set of behaviors or psychological orientations about how we communicate, instilled so deep within as if to be permanent and impossible to change.

But this isnt how communication works. Communication styles just aren’t a thing beyond an easy shortcut way to manufacture classifications of people and shortcuts to deal with them.

“Communication styles” come perfumed with the idea that “this is just how I communicate” and there isn’t much to be done about it. Believing in communication styles can also lead you to assumptions about the other person: “Their style is different than mine. We can’t connect.” As if you can’t get along because you’re both Pisces or something. How you communicate isn’t an astrological sign.

If you seek out information about communication and communication styles, you’ll find some content that seems legit. The fact is there is little to no scientific support for the idea. See here or here for examples of articles that appear legit, but have nearly zero scientific or conceptual support for their claims about “communication style”.

Styles are mostly an easy, shortcut — to which our monkey brains are quite prone. We self-select a style for ourselves and one for others and buy into the idea that we can’t connect because you’re “passive” and their “assertive” or you’re trying to “coaching” and they are “competitive.

Here’s a fun image I found that purports to explain communication styles:

Image for post
Image for post

This is either the absolute worst or single greatest take on communication styles I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure which. Which style are you? Owl? Panther? I never thought of myself as much of a peacock.

Find a different article and you’re some other style and you’d call yourself something else. There’s not nothing to the idea. There aren’t 4 communication styles. Or 6. Or 8. You don’t communicate like a peacock or dolphin.

The Problems With Communication Styles

Other than, you know, being wrong and not backed by science, thinking you have an innate communication style just isn’t that useful or productive a way to think about communication or yourself. And the problems with the idea (and those similar to it with respect to communication) run deep.

Communication styles encourage us to think in terms of compatibility. Different styles leads to thinking about “incompatibility” — unbridgeable spaces in between us. We’re back to astrological sign-thinking. “It just seems I’m not going to connect with them,” we tell ourselves.

And then write off trying.

Communication style is really just an easy excuse to give yourself for not understanding how communication works. Style is a shortcut that pigeonholes, stagnates, and hampers your ability to tap into the possibilities of communication.

The whole idea of communication style elides the fact that communication is precisely what we do to cross and bridge those gaps we perceive or to ultimately realize that two people in a relationship might not be compatible.

Every conversation is communication. It’s not about style.

Alternatively to thinking you possess a style of communication that is difficult to change, it’s better questions to ask yourself questions like:

  • How am I communicating?
  • How do others perceive me and my behaviors?
  • What should I do differently, or the same, about how I communicate?

Communication Changes, It’s Not Static

Communication is not static. It’s a process. It changes as we adapt to new challenges and contexts and as we move from conversation to conversation. We communicate differently in every relationship whether it’s 1-on-1 with someone, in a group, or in some other way. We don’t talk to our friends as we do to our co-workers (maybe we should?) or as we do with strangers on the internet.

Communication is always adapting itself. We communicate differently based on our situations and relationships, the context, who you’re talking to, and what your goals are.

Belief in communication styles, pushing them is, in my view, relatively cheap short-termed thinking. Business and psychology literature and content is littered with these sorts of insights about “communication.” Bad communication advice and pseudo-scientific listicles — most of it, anyways.

We’re terrible judges of our own communication behavior, so putting yourself or others into a simple “communication style” box just doesn’t do a whole lot of good.

You can communicate how you want.

Shifting from Style to Preferences

The value really lies in thinking about communication tendencies and preferences, because we all have them. Such a mindset also leaves communicators open to potential for change and growth.

“Style” makes one’s preferences feel like “the way things are.” Being able to accurately identify tendencies, preferences, and be able to adapt to those in useful ways is really where the payoff is at when it comes to communicating.

We always have the option to communicate differently.

When assessing others, rather than worry about correctly identifying a style, strive for realizations: “Oh, she’s acting like this, I’ve seen this behavior before” which might lead to thinking “Here’s how I’ve successfully dealt with people who I’ve seen act this way.” Or, “X is what I want to accomplish. Now, what is the best way to do that?”

Observing, knowing, and understanding your audience is essential to communicating. Knowing your preferences and understanding your audience gets you closer to good communication.

Humans seem predisposed to self-categorize just as we have predilections to create shortcuts, reinforce hierarchies, and categorize and organize ourselves into identifiable social categories.

But we don’t have a communication style. We communicate. We always have choices. Don’t get trapped in your own bubble.

You have your style and they have theirs… and never shall we meet. Where’s the hope in that?

Thankfully, this is an easily discardable idea. Communication is always behaviors-in-action. We all have preferences, tendencies, and yes there are better and worse ways to approach certain types of conversations. Just because communicating is a free-for-all doesn’t mean there isn’t good advice to be had. We can change behaviors by talking differently, listening more, or getting better attuned to our audience.

When it comes to communicating, there almost nothing you can’t change.

Writer. Trying to explain human communication simply. Fascinated by human interaction. PhD in Communication. davidrnovak.com @davidrnovak

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