Communication: Understanding your Audience

Have you ever said something that was misunderstood, or received an email you thought was discourteous? You are not alone. In fact you are in the vast majority. We communicate every day in many different ways. So much so, that communication seems an easy thing to do. However, very few people have mastered the skill of truly effective communication, where the sender and receiver both understand the same information as a result of the communication.

One of the keys to successful communication is understanding the person you’re communicating with – and that everyone is different.

I recently travelled to the Pacific to deliver training to an organisation of over 90 staff. One aspect of the training focused on communication. I was fascinated to hear the participants’ stories, and in particular what annoyed them when others communicated with them. One gentleman – let’s call him Harry – shared with his group how he hated receiving emails that didn’t address him by name. For example, ‘Hi’, instead of ‘Hi Harry’. While most people in the group found this funny, he was serious about his complaint. He even shared that at times he would delete an email if it didn’t address him by name. “That’s over the top,” you might think. But to Harry, it was an important aspect of effective communication, and to have any chance of communicating well with him, his colleagues needed to understand his personal preference.

People are different. We are different in the way we think, and therefore in the way we like to receive, send, and process information. We use different filters based on our mood, our upbringing, our education, and our cultural norms, to name but a few. If you use a ‘one size fits all’ approach to communication, you are likely to overlook the different needs and expectations of people. If you use the approach that is based on how you personally like to be communicated with, again, you run the risk of missing people’s differences and not being able to pass on or gain the information you wanted.

Getting a team to understand and take note of differences in their communications can be difficult. Most people will want to continue to communicate as they always have, and that usually means in a manner consistent with their preferences. One way to get people to think about their differences is to use a psychometric tool with the express goal of challenging their comfortable notion that they can communicate with people the same way each time, independent of audience, topic, and environment.

There are a multitude of tools to use, from personality stalwarts like Myers Briggs or DiSC to more specific implements like Belbin Team Roles. I particularly like the Neethling Brain Instrument (NBI), because it delves into individuals’ personal preferences and their thinking styles. The NBI profile can give you an indication of how you communicate, how you act towards other people, and how you learn, to name a few. The focus on thinking styles is important because it’s thinking styles that are the immediate precursor of behaviour, including communication behaviour.

The NBI is based on discoveries concerning the functional specialisation of parts of the brain, and breaks thinking styles down into four key profiles, or quadrants:

  • L1: this is the left cerebral quadrant thinking style. Individuals with this as their dominant thinking style will be logical, analytical, and bottom-line tough, making fact-based decisions that focus on the present. This person displays little emotion and likes things to be done their way. These are the people in your organisation who will determine all the bottom-line information that is necessary to support the ideas of others.
  • R1: this is the right cerebral quadrant thinking style. People with this as their dominant thinking style are often characterised as being intuitive or adventurous. They take risks, and they typically don’t like details and statistics; they also like to have fun and they lose interest easily. Strategic thinkers, R1s create the big picture; they are the organisations’ source of future-oriented, strategic ideas that will take the company to the edge of possibilities and beyond.
  • L2: this is the left limbic quadrant thinking style. People who have this as their dominant thinking style prefer things to be very detailed, structured, and solid. They are usually down-to-earth people who do not equivocate or display ambiguity. L2s believe in practical questions and thorough planning; they avoid taking risks and are good at implementing. These are the people who excel at developing plans and organisational systems that are necessary to put ideas into action.
  • R2: this is the right limbic quadrant thinking style. Individuals who have this as their dominant thinking style are highly participative and team-oriented. They often have well-developed value systems, are socially considerate, are instinctive in their approach, and enjoy group dynamics. R2s generate awareness and acceptance, and will communicate ideas, facts, and plans in the right way to gain support and stimulate passion.

Almost everyone is dominant in one or more styles. Sixty percent of the population are dominant in any two styles, thirty percent in any three styles, seven percent in one style and three percent are whole brained, that is, equally at home with all four styles. No profile is good or bad. It just identifies what the preference is for that particular person. The challenge comes when people dominant in opposing thinking styles have to interact.

Understanding your thinking style preferences gives you a new perspective of yourself and others you interact with every day. By tailoring what we say and how we say it to the thinking style of our recipient, we automatically improve the effectiveness of the communication. For example, Harry has a L1 and L2 thinking preference (accurate, meticulous, disciplined, detail). This explains why he prefers to receive emails that address him by name. By simply spending another second to write his name after Hi, you are more likely to know he will read your email. Another example, if your CEO has a R1 thinking preference (big picture, holistic, intuitive), do not put proposals to him with lots of detail. Instead provide him with a one pager supported by visuals.

Perhaps even more important than people understanding their NBI profile, however, is the impact of making people think analytically – perhaps for the first time –about how people would like to be communicated with.

I used the NBI with the group I trained in the Pacific. During my three weeks with them, I saw people take on board Harry’s complaint and acknowledge that this was one of his preferred communication methods, among many examples. This only reinforced for me how effective it is to know who you are communicating with, and how to best communicate with them.