Thursday, March 7, 2013

Communication Styles: from autistic toddlers to CEOs, the style matters.

I've been thinking a lot about communication styles lately, both professionally and personally.  I've mentioned it before, one of my children is on the autism spectrum.  For him communication is a constant struggle.  He has one word "go" that means several different things depending on how he says it.  Style means everything.  Like many autistic toddlers, he also has a lot of problems with transitions.  So changing my tone of voice or extremely exaggerating the look on my face when telling him what we're going to do next communicates so much more to him than the words do.  The style of communication can make a transition easier or cause him more anxiety.

Going through this process of figuring out how communication styles impact my interactions with my son has got me thinking about how communication styles impact your professional career almost as much, just not quite so transparently.  During a conversation with a friend, we discussed a style we both tend to jump into at work.  When someone brings up an idea or a question, I often jump immediately into execution (a.k.a. "lawyer") mode and start issue spotting.  I bring up the 'what about's' and 'what if's'.  For the person bringing it up, it may sounds as if I'm judging or being negative - even though that was never the intent.  Simply taking a minute to get excited about the idea or putting off answering the question until I've given it some thought and then not bringing up the irrelevant 'what about's' that pop immediately into my head would go a long way with reassuring the other person of the value of their idea and the value of my contribution.

You hear a lot from in house lawyers about never saying "no".  And it's true, if you say "no" too often you ruin your brand internally and become a road block instead of a partner.  But, what you don't hear very often, is how to communicate that the proposed solution won't work for whatever reason but your modification will.  If you jump too quickly to your modification, then it appears as though you're just being difficult.  If you go into too much detail about your path for getting at the modification, it appears that you're too academic in your thought process and don't understand how business really works.  There's a sweet spot in between the two that will garner you the respect of your business people while keeping you squarely in the giving solid legal advice column.  Many in house lawyers spend years looking for that sweet spot, only to find that it moves depending on the business person you're talking with.

What's important is to be aware of the need to constantly evaluate how your audience is receiving your communication style as well as the substance and make adjustments as necessary to reduce the anxiety.  Like my communications with my son, it can be extremely challenging - but when you get it right, it's one of the most rewarding aspects of human interaction.     

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