The scenario is a familiar one: During the course of a meeting, someone comes up with an idea that is passed over by the rest of the group. Later on, someone else proposes the same idea--and it is enthusiastically endorsed.
That this happens (and who hasn't it happened to?) underscores a crucial meeting dynamic: What people say is often less important than how they say it. From that stems the unwritten law of meeting communication: He who knows best how to express himself will be heard.
Knowing how to effectively communicate relies on a keen understanding of the different personalities sitting around the table, say experts like Tony Alessandra, Ph.D, a leading authority on marketing strategies. According to Alessandra, productive meeting communication happens when we take into account people's varied needs, wants, and ways of doing things. "I call it the platinum rule," he says. "Treat others the way they want to be treated. You don't have to change your personality. You simply have to understand what drives people and recognize your options for dealing with them."
Those who don't take personal style differences into account risk communications meltdown. "One of the single biggest reasons teams misfire is that personality differences are ignored," he claims.
Different Strokes, Different Folks Defining personality types is anything but a new idea. Back in ancient Greece, Hippocrates developed the concept of four temperaments, and in 1923, Carl Jung described four behavioral types. In his 1996 book "The Platinum Rule," Alessandra defines four basic personality styles: directors, socializers, relaters, and thinkers (see box on page 40). "Everyone possesses qualities of each style to one degree or another," notes Alessandra, "but everyone also has one dominant style."
Each of the four styles brings different perspectives to a meeting, and each communicates differently in small group settings. Directors want results, period. They typically set a meeting in motion with a clear agenda, and communicate with brief, task-oriented comments. They like to keep discussions on track and on time.
In contrast, Socializers cover a wide range of topics throughout the course of a meeting. They're the ones who use flattery to bring the group together as a team, and humor to diffuse tension.
Relaters are the diplomats of the group. They ask many questions during a meeting and encourage other participants to speak out. They dislike interpersonal conflict and work toward consensus by helping everyone understand each others' point of view.
Unlike Relaters, Thinkers are not especially comfortable operating in groups. Their focus is working toward tangible results. They may not say much, but when they do contribute, it is meaningful.
Directors and Thinkers are task-oriented and want to move straight and fast toward a goal. Socializers and Relaters are relationship-oriented and move at a slower pace. According to Alessandra, effective communication between these different individuals relies not only on understanding their personalities, but also their priorities and the pace at which they operate.
Public Vs. Private Lives Some experts assert that small group dynamics are influenced not by people's private personalities, but by their public styles. "The dominant flavor of someone's style of interaction in a meeting often comes about through training and background," says Gene Boccialetti, Ph.D, a professor of management at the University of New Hampshire and author of "It Takes Two: Managing Your Relationship with Your Boss." Boccialetti, who is also a consultant for such organizations as Ford Motor Corporation and the Center for Creative Leadership, says that we develop specific personal styles for the workplace that influence how we act at meetings. "I'm a person who doesn't like conflict," he explains, "and so I keep my home life placid. But I know that conflict can stimulate creativity and innovation in a meeting. So I have taught myself how to challenge people when a group comes together for a creative task."
People's public selves reflect their different professional bents. For example, engineers and production personnel have a practical and logical orientation. They tend to be quiet in the first phase of a meeting when a lot of creative brainstorming takes place, and then will participate when the group focuses on practical actions and solutions. Finance and accounting professionals have a resource perspective, and will be more attuned to the internal corporate environment than the external environment. Human resource staff want to promote people's welfare and job fulfillment, so they will question how corporate decisions impact personnel. Marketing and sales people tend to be imaginative and creative, and would be most likely to introduce new ideas to the meeting.
"The strategic goal of a small corporate meeting," Boccialetti comments, "is to maintain a dynamic tension among these different public personalities. Don't let people get personal."
It's All in the Programming Not only are people influenced by their personality types and their public and private personas, but by their individual communication styles. Maura Beatty, a communications strategist and author of the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Communication, refers to this as neurolinguistic programming. For instance, she identifies three ways (technically referred to as "channels") that people send out information in a meeting. First, there is the visual channel. "We're a very visual culture," notes Beatty. "Sixty percent of Americans want to see something before they hear about it. It gives you instant credibility with these visually oriented people to distribute a photograph, memo, or other handout at the meeting."
Second, there is the auditory channel. Twenty percent of the U.S. population wants to hear about a topic first. "You must be precise in your language to reach this group," she says.
The final 20 percent are kinesthetic. They will respond to something experiential before something visual or auditory--such as warming up with stretching exercises at the start of a meeting to feel comfortable.
A good team leader communicates on all three channels, says Beatty. "Meetings that have these three components are going to hook everyone in the room: those who need to see it, those who need to hear it, and those who need to have the experience."
More advice from Beatty: Watch out for what she dubs a "beppumoid infestation." A beppumoid is her term for "a little tiny creature that crawls into the ears of people at meetings and prevents them from hearing anything that anybody says."
Her anecdote: Take a coffee break. "Meetings should break every hour," she counsels, "or you'll have a beppumoid in every ear."
Talking About Communication Author Deborah Tannen on communication styles We caught up with best-selling author Deborah Tannen, Ph.D ("You Just Don't Understand" and "Talking from 9 to 5") in between teaching sociolinguistics at Georgetown University and promoting her forthcoming book, "The Argument Culture," on The Today Show.
CMI: You say in "Talking from 9 to 5" that individual's styles, and how their styles interact with each others', are as influential as the quality of the ideas presented at meetings. What are the specific ways that you categorize conversational style?
"Ethnic, regional, gender, class, sexual orientation, and age. The key thing is to understand the concept of conversational style: all the ways a person communicates how he means what he says. That is, is he direct or indirect? What is his intonation pattern? How loud or soft is his voice? Does he think it is appropriate to talk about something personal? Understanding this concept gives you the flexibility to treat people differently."
CMI: Can you describe the conversational style of the successful communicator versus that of one who is ignored?
"A lot has to do with how the ideas are put forth. If you start with a disclaimer, or downplay the idea rather than pumping it, it will tend to be ignored. The difficulty of getting heard can be experienced by anyone who doesn't stand their ground, who doesn't speak forcefully, or who doesn't begin with a high level of credibility.
There are people who are very understated and quiet and when they speak, yet everyone pays attention. But other people with the same style might have the opposite effect, due to people's stereotypes about gender or regional or ethnic style differences. It's misleading to attribute the tendency to ignore some people and pay attention to others just to the individual's own behavior.
There are also a combination of assumptions about who is going to say what. Those of higher rank are more likely to speak up and to be listened to when they do. The boss is going to get credit no matter what he or she says."
CMI: Research shows that women are not as likely to be listened to as men, regardless of how they speak or what they way. Why? What's the best strategy for a woman to get heard at a meeting?
"Women don't get listened to for several reasons. There is an assumption that women's contributions are not going to be of the most value. Women, as well as minorities, have to prove that their contributions will in fact be worthwhile.
Women are reluctant to sound self-promoting, however, so they often talk in a way that downplays the importance of their contributions. They tend to keep their voices low. Sometimes they try to say things in a succinct way because they don't want to take up more meeting time than necessary.
When women do change their styles to speak authoritatively, they find themselves in a double bind. Any woman who tries to become more assertive also runs a risk of being sanctioned as too aggressive.
One strategy for a woman trying to get heard at a meeting is to judiciously choose the issues on which she will speak up, so as not to come across as dominant. Or, if she feels uncomfortable speaking up, she might find it a good idea to talk to the other group members in private, before the meeting begins. Each woman has to find what works for her. But it's definitely not going to work if she just decides: 'I'm going to be as aggressive as a man.' "
CMI: What's the best way to maximize communication at a meeting?
"One of the most fascinating aspects about meeting communication is that a structured meeting allows for better communication than an unstructured meeting. We think of a democracy as a free-for-all that allows everyone an equal opportunity. But ironically, the more free a meeting is, the less fair it is. Those who jump in with their opinions have the advantage. Those who aren't comfortable interrupting have a very hard time getting heard. This is because conversational-style differences result in unequal opportunity. Those who feel they should get others' agreement before taking the floor back off when interrupted. Others habitually speak up and disproportionately determine the direction the group takes.
Anything you can do to structure the meeting so that people are given the floor rather than having to grab the floor helps. Go around and invite each person to say what he or she thinks, rather than assuming that people will speak and say what's on their minds."
Who's Who? Directors They're goal-oriented, decisive, fast-paced, and totally focused on bottom-line results. Typically, directors are high achievers with excellent administrative skills. On the negative side, directors can be stubborn, impatient, or insensitive to the feelings of others.
The best way to communicate with Directors: Stay focused on the goal of the meeting and the bottom-line results.
Socializers They're direct, enthusiastic, spontaneous, and friendly. They tend to be idea people and usually work quickly and enthusiastically with others. However, a disregard for details may cause Socializers to exaggerate or generalize facts and figures.
The best way to communicate with Socializers: Allow them time to talk and attempt to develop some mutually stimulating ideas together. If there are disagreements, explore alternative solutions.
Relaters They're open, warm, supportive, nurturing, and reliable. Relaters are excellent listeners and team players. But they will procrastinate to avoid risky or unknown situations, and can be perceived by others as compliant or soft-hearted.
The best way to communicate with Relaters: Relaters respond well to those who get to know them personally, and who go at a slow pace. Develop trust and credibility before discussing new ideas with Relaters.
Thinkers They're self-contained, systematic problem solvers who are logical and persistent. They approach problems analytically, cover every detail, and are more concerned with content than style. Because they analyze so much, however, Thinkers are poor decision-makers.
The best way to communicate with Thinkers: Take a systematic, logical approach. Give them time to ponder decisions, list advantages and disadvantages for anything you propose, and have viable alternatives to deal with the disadvantages.
SOURCE: TONY ALESSANDRA, PH.D