Adjust your communication style for effective sponsor engagement


Effectively engaging your sponsor in project decisions during initiation and execution is critical to your project's success. Your ability to manage the sponsor in an appropriate manner can be the difference between success and failure of your project. But how do you adjust your strategies and plans to get the desired level of sponsor engagement? The authors will explain the communication needs and preferences of different sponsors, help you identify your sponsor's styles, and teach you how to adjust your process and style of communicating with your sponsor to meet his or her expectations. To get the most out of this presentation, each attendee is encouraged to complete a free, comprehensive assessment of his or her own preferred and adapted communication styles.

Introduction to People Reading

We read to comprehend the information we are focused on. When interacting with project sponsors, we need the skills to comprehend their frames of reference, how they like to make decisions, how they prefer to respond to challenges, the pace of the environment, and the way they will respond to rules set by others. I call this “people reading.”

Getting people to focus on your desired results and take the right actions requires learning the three parts to people reading:

  • Communication style—how you approach others
  • Motivators—why you do what you do
  • Emotional intelligence—your ability to use your feelings wisely to guide your actions and make better decisions

This paper focuses on the communication style part of people reading. I‘m going to reveal what you need to know in order to be able to read the communication styles of your sponsors as well as anyone you meet. As you become a master of this skill, you will be able to identify and develop other people's strengths and complete your project, by collaborating effectively with the right people at the right time.

When you have the ability to identify another person's preferred communication style, you will have better conversations and be more effective. You will collaborate, lead, coach, manage, and serve in meaningful ways, by adapting to the communication needs of the moment. You will experience more effective communication and relationships than you have ever known before. Magic will happen around you, because you are making connections that matter with your sponsors.

Lee Iacocca says, “Communication is EVERYTHING!” I would add that the right communication that connects with your listener is everything. People dynamics—interpersonal communication—has patterns similar to dance moves. If you understand these patterns, you will be more effective in dancing the steps effectively. If you do not understand these patterns, your communication, like your dance movements, can seem disjointed and awkward, putting you at risk of doing the “tango” when everyone else is dancing the “dougie.”

Understanding the range of behaviors and motivators will guide you to recognize what is likely to emerge in a relationship. People reading gives you the self-awareness to be sensitive to the communication needs of your sponsors, so your message will reach them—so they will understand you. For example, someone who likes to make decisions quickly and forcefully will also probably like a strong, healthy debate— in other words, he or she will enjoy what people who do not like to make quick decisions call arguing. On the other hand, a sponsor who prefers to research a broad array of options, perhaps reading several books or articles on the topic before making a decision, will probably not like a strong emotional appeal in your presentation.

When you have memorized the cluster patterns and how they fit together, you will begin to see and then read these people dynamics. Your ability to people read successfully will ensure effective sponsor communications. In addition, as a project manager, you will solve people problems on project teams by filling in the missing pieces. As a leader, you will put the right people in roles that will bring out their best selves and help you achieve the goals that are most meaningful to you. As with any new skill, learning this one requires you to understand the model and then practice, practice, practice until you master it.

Preferred Communication Styles

First, imagine that there are four common patterns in wiring a human brain that result in preferred conversation behavior and stories. Or you could think of it as four different windows people look out of as they communicate. Each of these represents a different communication window:

  • Direct, results-oriented, action-focused, and forceful conversations
  • Optimistic, fun, creative, entertaining, expressive, and lively conversations
  • Relaxed, patient, steady, and process-oriented conversations
  • Fact-based, accurate, logical, analytical, and detail-oriented conversations

Imagine these as communication windows that you look through as you interact with others. Depending on which window you are looking out of, you are going to see, experience, and want different things. When you have mastered this, you will be able to select the communication window that you need at the moment in order to achieve the best outcome, rather than doing what comes to you most naturally.

There is not one right way for us to behave or communicate, so there is not one style of communication that will be best in all situations. The goal is to understand these four patterns of brain-wiring. When you do you will be able to identify in a meeting or a conversation what the underlying conversation needs are for each person to be able to walk away from the exchange feeling that things are moving forward. When you identify the need clearly, you can decide whether you are the right person to provide that information, or if you would be better served by finding someone with a different communication style who can achieve the desired results.

Let's take this deeper now. When looking to identify which communication style is being displayed, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Is the sponsor (or group) I am communicating with more outgoing and extraverted, or more internal and introverted?
  • Is the sponsor (or group) I am communicating with more task-focused or more people-focused?

Outgoing or extraverted communicators tend to speak directly, loudly, with crisp, sharp, or large circular gestures. They enjoy meeting and talking with people and will be proactive in meeting new people. Gregarious, animated, or bold are words that may be used to describe their behavior. They will jump in and start a conversation quickly, adding their own ideas, opinions, and suggestions. Groups of meeting planners, sales teams, and advertising executives commonly are outgoing communicators.

Internal or introverted communicators tend to speak softly, indirectly with small or no hand gestures. To people with another style they may appear timid or shy at first and tend to wait until they are introduced to engage in conversation. Diplomatic, reserved, and thoughtful are words that may be used to describe their behavior. They will likely wait until someone else initiates a conversation, and then they will respond. Groups of research scientists, chemical engineers, and accountants commonly are introverted communicators.

Task-focused communicators may have checklists for everything. They are focused on the current process and task at hand. People using a task focus will dive into the work or business agenda immediately. They appear to want to check items off the list and move onto the next item. They do not appear to want to engage in small talk until after the work is finished. Examples of what this sounds like:

  • “Tally the five rows on this spread sheet, then analyze which data we will use in our report.”
  • “Read this report and summarize the three key points.”
  • “Send me the process flow on this project plan.”

People-focused communicators will be interested in the morale, energy, and big picture involved in the issue being discussed. Communicators who are using a people focus will be more interested in getting to know you; small talk is important before diving into a meeting agenda or doing business. In a meeting this may sound like:

  • “What are the benefits of this proposal to the employees who will be affected by the changes we are initiating? Who will be most affected? How could we include them in the planning of this project?”
  • “What are you feeling about this? Do you have a gut instinct for this?
  • “How can we influence our Japanese counterparts in project management to see this the same way we do? Currently they are viewing the industry needs differently from the way we do, and we need to understand why.”

By answering these two questions, you will be able to identify the preferred communication style for the moment. You will be able to have a conversation that addresses the specific needs of someone else's style. My goal is to show you how to do this at any time. My goal is NOT to have you put people in boxes and leave them there—people's communication needs will change, based on the situation they are in. It is important that you see what is happening in the moment, so you can guide the conversation in a way that builds trust and rapport instead of tension.

Outgoing/extraverted, task-oriented communication is a sign that the Dominant Communication Style is in play. Outgoing/extraverted, people-oriented communication is a sign that the Influence Communication Style is in play. Internal/introverted, people-oriented communication is a sign that the Steady Communication Style is in play. Internal/introverted, task-oriented communication is a sign that the Compliant to Standards Communication Style is in play.

So what does this really mean? There are predictable communication needs that emerge from each style. The most effective way to gain the commitment and cooperation of others is to provide what they need, to understand their styles, and to blend your own so that you connect with them. By identifying another person or group's communication needs, you can adapt to that style and gain the person or group's attention. Let's look at each of the four pure styles in depth.

Dominance Style Communication Patterns

People with the Dominant style preference need:

  • Activity
  • Opportunity to respond to problems and debate
  • Challenges
  • Power
  • Quick decision making and a willingness to re-make decisions as they acquire more information
  • Variety and lots of change
  • Opportunity to be a self-starter
  • Results
  • New ideas and new and unique products to buy

Dominant behavior can be seen by those with other styles as:

  • Bold
  • Demanding
  • Pioneering
  • Aggressive
  • Driving
  • Competitive
  • Ambitious
  • Curious
  • Responsible
  • Relying on gut instincts
  • Juggling too many activities
  • Rushing with a strong sense of urgency to get things done
  • Willing to break the rules to be more efficient

People with this style will fight back when they experience external conflict. They need to learn that those with other styles are not as direct with their feelings as they are. High Dominant communicators also love to make quick decisions, but they often do not realize that those with other styles cannot do this. They will interrupt others whom they perceive to be too slow. Their sense of urgency to make a decision is often what creates conflict. Instead they need to give others a few days to think and prepare for a discussion. On the phone they prefer to get right to the point, with little to no chitchat.

The Dominant style communicator adds value to a team in the following ways:

  • Innovation
  • Initiation of activity
  • Making decisions quickly in a crisis
  • Being challenge oriented or argumentative
  • Placing a high value on managing time efficiently
  • Being a bottom-line organizer
  • Tenacity
  • Challenging the status quo
  • Competitiveness
  • Paying attention to the big picture and the concept or vision
  • Taking risks that those with other styles will not be willing to take

The Dominant style communicator wants:

  • Forums for verbalizing their ideas
  • Quick decisions
  • Prestige, position, and powerful titles
  • Ways to demonstrate success
  • Power and authority to achieve results
  • Control of his own destiny and opportunities to lead others

Projects that are well suited to the Dominant Communication Style include:

  • Freedom from controls and direct supervision
  • Non-routine work that includes risk, challenges, and new opportunities
  • Evaluation based on the results produced, not how the process was done
  • A forum to express ideas and suggestions efficiently
  • Lots of activity and movement

When communicating with a person showing Dominant style patterns, do these things:

  • Stick to business.
  • Be clear and to the point
  • Ask questions that begin with the word “What”
  • Present facts logically and plan your presentation in advance
  • Take issue with the facts directly in a disagreement; be bold and confident
  • Have a well-organized package; look professional and polished
  • Make decisions quickly, knowing that you can re-make the decision later, if additional facts arise that warrant reviewing the decision

Some public figures with the Dominant style as their predominant communication behavior:

  • Donald Trump
  • Hillary Clinton
  • Steve Jobs
  • Mark Zuckerberg
  • Serena Williams
  • Nancy Pelosi
  • Captain Kirk (Star Trek)

Whom do you know who frequently uses this communication style?

High Dominant communicators will be direct and to the point. To those with other communication styles they will appear blunt, argumentative, and overly results-focused. After a heated debate, people with this communication style do not hold a grudge, and they may not realize that some with other styles do. Prose and flowery language may turn them off.

Each style has limitations or blind spots. It is important to know the Dominant style limitations:

  • They may lack tact and diplomacy in selling new ideas and suggestions; they can appear bossy.
  • They take on too much, too soon, too fast.
  • They focus too heavily on tasks that get results and avoid building relationships.
  • They refuse to listen to people considered to be less experienced or competent.
  • They push or bully people, instead of leading them.
  • They are overly argumentative and appear not to be listening.
  • They are impatient pushing for decisions or action now.
  • They will overstep their authority if they do not understand where the boundaries are.

Influence Style Communication Patterns

People with the Influence style preference need:

  • To interact socially with others
  • Activity
  • A favorable environment
  • Opportunities for fun
  • Opportunity to sell their ideas and influence others to their points of view
  • To be liked, to hear affirmations
  • Emotional connection to others—talk about feelings

Influence style behavior can be seen as:

  • Enthusiastic
  • Inspiring
  • Magnetic
  • Political
  • Persuasive
  • Warm
  • Charming
  • Polished
  • Trusting
  • Sociable
  • Poised
  • Quick to decide—may appear impulsive in buying what they want
  • Emotional
  • Optimistic
  • Talkative—chatty

People with this style may verbally lash out or fight and then run when they feel conflict. They can be seen by those with other styles as being verbally intense or abusive when angry. They will interrupt others because they are so chatty and full of ideas. They do not mean their interruptions to squash others; they are simply feeling excited about what they are discussing. On the phone they may initiate long conversations and will have a great deal of tone variation in their voices as they chitchat about all the events of their day and their thoughts on everything. These are huggers; they will greet you with a warm hug, even if they are new acquaintances. They warmly touch your arm to confirm agreement.

The Influence style communicator adds value to a team in the following ways:

  • Verbalizing thinking clearly
  • Ease with words
  • Positive sense of humor
  • Motivating others toward goals and to be part of the team
  • Negotiating or facilitating when there is conflict on the team
  • Building morale and creating hope for new possibilities with their warm, friendly, fun demeanor

Those with the Influence style want:

  • People who appreciate their verbal conversational abilities
  • Social recognition—public acknowledgment of what they are doing
  • Variety of people to connect with and build connections with
  • Identification with a team or group—time to socialize with the group members
  • Freedom of speech and lots of people to speak with daily
  • Positive, uplifting, optimistic people to interact with
  • Group activities—teams to belong to outside the work environment
  • Warm connections to others

Projects that are well suited to those with the Influence Communication Style include:

  • Activities that involve working with teams—lots of people to interact with
  • Freedom to move around easily
  • A manager who appreciates that they share their thinking and feelings easily
  • Optimistic work culture that appreciates their warm, friendly, fun style
  • Work tasks that change frequently—they love variety
  • Assignments that involve inspiring, connecting, and networking with other people
  • Freedom from detail

When communicating with people showing Influence style patterns, do these things:

  • Show that you are open to interacting—ask friendly, warm questions to engage
  • Be stimulating and fast moving
  • Use emotion and inspiring language
  • Ask questions about their goals, dreams, and aspirations
  • Ask their opinions on ideas you are considering
  • Be optimistic and forward-looking
  • Express your emotion freely, and ask about how they are feeling
  • Listen, showing direct eye contact, when they express their feelings
  • Be direct, and share your creative ideas
  • Appreciate their trusting nature
  • Understand they can be quick decision-makers wanting the showy new products
  • Provide ideas and structures that will bring their creative ideas alive
  • Provide testimonials from people they see as important
  • Offer incentives for their willingness to take risks

Some public figures who use the Influence style as their predominant communication pattern:

  • President Ronald Reagan
  • Bill and Giuliana Rancic
  • George Stephanopoulos
  • Shelly Lazarus
  • Jay Leno
  • Bill Cosby
  • President Bill Clinton

Whom do you know who frequently uses this communication style?

Companies like Zappos, Disney, Southwest Airlines, and Ben & Jerry's, which strive to make business look fun, are exhibiting the High Influence tendency. High Influence conversation will be wordy, flowery, emotional, charming, outgoing, and fun.

Each style has limitations or blind spots. It is important to know the Influence Style limitations:

  • Need for help creating structures and organization
  • Need for focus to help them stay on track with their goals, as they can be easily distracted
  • A tendency to interrupt others because they have so much they want to say
  • Lashing out at others when they are upset, which may feel verbally abusive to others

Steady Style Communication Patterns

People with the Steady Style preference need:

  • Established standards and methods
  • A stable and predictable environment
  • Personal attention and recognition for ongoing commitment to the project and for tasks completed consistently
  • An environment where long-standing relationships can be developed
  • An environment that gives time to adjust to changes

Steady behavior can be seen as:

  • Mild
  • Friendly
  • Systematic
  • Sincere
  • Non-demonstrative
  • Team-playing
  • Patient
  • Stable
  • Kind
  • Understanding
  • Predictable
  • Amiable
  • Passive compared to other styles

People with this style of communication will put up with what is being asked of them when they feel conflict. They do not want to argue; it is uncomfortable for them to stand up to someone else in a conversation. Later, they may feel resentful that they were pushed to do something they did not want to do. They can hold onto bitterness and resentment at someone for a very long time without openly admitting that they feel this way. Great listeners, they will not interrupt others. On the phone, they are warm conversationalists, friendly, and concerned for the other person or team.

The Steady style communicator adds value to a team in the following ways:

  • Patience for all
  • Logical, step-by-step thinker
  • Great listener
  • Creating an easygoing, relaxed culture
  • Dependable team worker
  • Finishing tasks committed to
  • Reconciling, calming, and stabilizing other team members

The Steady Style communicator wants:

  • To serve
  • Patient, relaxed conversations and relationships
  • Loyalty
  • Long-term projects and relationships
  • Closure on projects and decisions before starting something new
  • To work for a leader with a cause

Projects that are well suited to the Steady Communication Style include:

  • Completing work that has a clear step-by-step model already established
  • Long-term assignments
  • Working with the same team members for long periods of time

When communicating with people showing the Steady style patterns, do these things:

  • Move casually and informally; begin with personal comments to break the ice
  • Ask about their families and personal lives. It is for their families and their causes that they do what they are doing, so respect that this is what is most important to them
  • Ask “How” questions
  • Present your case logically, nonthreateningly, giving time for them to digest and ask questions
  • Provide personal assurances and guarantees
  • Patiently draw out their goals and ideas
  • Listen and be responsive to what they say. Show you are contemplating their input and explain how you are going to (or not going to) move forward with their ideas and why
  • Allow them at least three days to think and weigh the options when making decisions
  • Don't mistake their willingness to go along for agreement or satisfaction. Look for signs that they may have hurt feelings, because they will often not express these directly, and it will be important to uncover them so that resentment does not bubble up later.

Some public figures who use the Steady Style as their predominant communication pattern:

  • Mother Teresa
  • President George H. Bush
  • Former First Lady Laura Bush
  • Warren Buffet
  • Martin Luther King
  • Gandhi
  • Fred Rogers (TV host from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood)

Whom do you know who frequently uses this communication style?

High Steady conversation will be:

  • Introverted
  • People focused
  • Indirect
  • Focused on stability
  • Slow decision making spread over days or weeks in several conversations
  • Relaxed, with no sense of urgency (even if there is urgency)

Each style has limitations or blind spots. It is important to know the Steady style communicator's limitations:

  • Lack of emotion. It may be hard to read their feelings; they often do not themselves know what they are feeling about something until they are asked to explore it.
  • Possessiveness.
  • Appearance of agreement or support an idea because they are uncomfortable working through conflict.
  • Need for preparation and time to adjust to changing circumstances.
  • Having homey clutter around them.
  • Taking constructive criticism of their work as a personal affront, so it can be hard to give them feedback to help them grow.
  • Need for help getting started on something new, because they like to do what is tried and trusted, rather than start new, unknown projects.
  • Internalizing their feelings; they tend not to discuss their hurt feelings to gain resolution and move on.
  • Waiting for orders or direction from others before taking action; they need someone to tell them what to do, because they may not take initiative on their own.
  • Staying involved in a situation that is not good for them, because they do not project a sense of urgency.
  • Stubbornness, being locked into their ways of thinking about or doing something

The Steady style communicator needs:

  • A favorable—no conflict—environment
  • A steady pace that allows time to consider options before making decisions
  • Time to make decisions
  • Little variety in day-to-day activity

The Steady style communicator can be seen as:

  • Relaxed
  • Predictable
  • Stable
  • Reliable
  • Deliberate
  • Consistent
  • Non-demonstrative, not into drama
  • Resistant to change

Compliant to Standards Style Communication Patterns

People with the Compliant to Standards style preference need:

  • Direct and to-the-point conversations
  • Fact-based conversations
  • Logic
  • Proven results
  • Guarantees
  • Rules
  • Low risks and the ability to collect information about pros and cons before decisions are made
  • No impulsive actions
  • No emotionalized dramatic communication

Compliant-to-Standards behavior can be seen as:

  • Accurate
  • Mature
  • Conscientious
  • Fact-focused
  • Systematic
  • Analytical
  • Methodical
  • Exacting
  • Restrained
  • Precise
  • Diplomatic
  • Patient
  • Unemotional or fear-based

People with this style will avoid dealing with the issue when they feel conflict; they need to learn how to address and negotiate differences in opinions and feelings early on before they turn into deep conflict. This does not come easily for them, because it is about subjective emotion and they prefer to deal in facts and logic. They will not interrupt others unless they are pushed to the edge and feel intense anger. On the phone, they get right to the point, with little to no chitchat: “Just the facts, ma'am.”

The Compliant-to-Standards communicator adds value to a team in the following ways:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Defining, clarifying, getting information, criticizing, and testing fact-based thinking
  • Objective thinking
  • Maintaining high standards and quality controls
  • Being task focused
  • Asking lots of questions
  • Being diplomatic
  • Paying attention to small details and the next task at hand to implement the desired result
  • High quality and safety standards
  • Perfectionism, double checking all details

Those exhibiting the Compliant-to-Standards style want:

  • Procedures
  • Manuals
  • Precision and attention to details
  • Proof and evidence
  • Doing work by the book
  • Safe environments
  • Quality controls

Projects that are well suited to the Compliant-to-Standards Communication Style include:

  • Implementing quality controls and procedures
  • Technical, task-oriented work in deeply specialized areas
  • Assignments that can be followed through to completion
  • Tasks where critical thinking is needed and rewarded
  • Minimal noise and people distractions or interruptions
  • Little need for customer service or bedside manor

When communicating with people showing Compliant-to-Standards style patterns, do these things:

  • Speak in fact-based language, not emotions
  • Be direct and to the point—be all business—let them decide whether they want to socialize after the work is done
  • Prepare your case in advance; give them a detailed agenda, so they can prepare ahead of time
  • Be formal
  • Build credibility by showing that you have looked at all sides of the issue
  • Present specifics and do exactly what you say you will do
  • Create a proposed action plan with a time line and milestones—a spreadsheet that shows the whole project plan—and ask for their input
  • Do not be abrupt or rapid in your speaking
  • Be prepared to answer loads of questions
  • Give them time to make decisions based on what they want. It will take at least three days for them to digest the information, so ask, “When would you like to review this again? I‘m available to answer your questions, and here is how you can reach me over the next few days.”
  • Use data and facts to disagree—no emotional appeals
  • Shake their hands and look them in the eye, and then do not touch them again. These are not huggy-touchy-mushy types; they do not like public displays of affection.

Public figures who use the Compliant-to-Standards style as their predominant communication pattern:

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Allen Greenspan
  • Bill Gates
  • Al Gore
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • Tiger Woods
  • Mr. Spock (Star Trek)
  • Courtney Cox (character on Friends TV show)
  • Barbara Walters

Whom do you know who frequently uses this communication style?

High Compliant-to-Standards conversation will be:

  • Introverted
  • Task focused
  • Direct
  • Focused on avoiding problems—risk mitigation

Each style has limitations or blind spots. It is important to know the Compliant-to-Standards style communicators’ limitations:

  • Being too critical of themselves and others
  • Bing unaware of how often they squash others emotionally, a need to develop self-awareness and empathy for other's feelings to keep other people engaged with them
  • Having the most difficulty with High Influencers who want to express emotions and seem too impulsive
  • Having difficulty with High Dominant communicators who seem fixed in their own points of view and want to make decisions quickly, based on the first evidence they find that supports their points of view

What Is the Right Style?

There is not one right style. Right and wrong are judgments that relate to ethics. We are not talking about ethics here. We are focused on understanding people's communication needs. The issue is what you do with your communication style to be effective when collaborating with others.

Each style has predictable strengths and blind spots, and when you understand how these play together, you will begin to collaborate with people to play to their strengths and to cover their blind spots. You will no longer take it personally or be offended when you bump up against someone's blind spots. It is not personal when someone who has a high Compliant-to-Standards Communication Style does not greet you with a warm hug. Likewise, when someone gives you a big warm hug the first time he or she sees you, you'll recognize a clue that points to the Influence Communication pattern.

I advise my coaching clients to look at each project and ask, “Who will be able to collaborate with me, based on his or her strengths?” Begin to give detailed, analytical, research projects to people who are comfortable with the Compliant-to-Standards window. Give projects that require lots of people interaction in exploring new ideas to those who are comfortable with the Influence Communication Style. Give projects that involve following established processes, executing the same pattern over and over, to someone comfortable with the Steady Communication Style. Give assignments that are focused on change, challenge, the big picture, testing boundaries, and high risk to someone who is comfortable with the Dominant Communication Style. Whenever possible, design projects and roles in your workplace that are doable based on the communication style needs of the work being done.

Understanding communication styles not only helps you bring out the best in your employees by connecting them with projects suited to their modes of operating, it can also help you fine tune your ability to persuade and influence project sponsors, customers, investors, or anyone with whom you need to share your vision. If you know your audience well, it's much easier to tailor the delivery and content of your message to make it more effective.

Peter Guber is the Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment. The films he has produced include Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple, Midnight Express, Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey, The Witches of Eastwick, Missing, and Flashdance. Guber's films have earned over $3 billion worldwide and 50 Academy Award nominations. Clearly, he knows how to get results. Guber said, “A great storyteller never tells a story the same way twice. Instead, she sees what is unique in each storytelling experience and responds fully to what is demanded. A story involving your company should sound different each time. Whether you tell it to 2,000 customers at a convention, 500 salespeople at a marketing meeting, ten stock analysts in a conference call, or three CEOs over drinks, tailor it to the situation. Great storytellers prepare obsessively. They think about, rethink, work, and rework their stories to fit the audience.”

What does it take to do what Guber suggests when you communicate with your sponsors? Identify what their needs are, so you meet their needs in your presentations and conversations. When you know how to do this, you will experience a new level of confidence in your ability to connect meaningfully as you engage with people. Know your story so well that you can tailor it to the situation you are in, like a jazz musician who can improvise on a riff while he matches the harmony with others. Know how to read your sponsor and the team as well. Then you will be able to tailor your story to the people in front of you for them to hear your message in a way that is engaging to them.

I have described the four “pure” communication styles. Most of us prefer a combination of these four styles.

  • 19 percent of the population prefers a style that has Dominant as the highest preference.
  • 32 percent of the population prefers a style that has Influence as the highest preference.
  • 35 percent of the population prefers a style that has Steady as the highest preference.
  • 14 percent of the population prefers a style that has Compliant as the highest preference.

How do these numbers affect your approach to mastering communication styles? First, learn how to adapt to each of the pure styles, and then practice identifying the combination patterns, beginning with the Steady style. For example, how will a person who prefers the Steady and Compliant-to-Standards communication patterns show up in a meeting? Then how will a person who prefers the Steady and Influence patterns show up? What will someone who prefers the Influence/Dominant combination pattern want to focus on in a conversation? Practice creating conversations that will appeal to each of these combinations.

It is not possible to be all things to all people. I am not suggesting that you need to be able to turn yourself inside out to build deep rapport with every person you meet.

If using this information about communication styles is not about trying to be all things to all people, what is it about? It's about guiding yourself and others toward the right roles and assignments on a project team; it's about speaking to people in a way that they can hear you; it's about valuing differences and knowing how to bring out the best in others. Your ability to adapt your behavior and conversations to each of the styles will increase your effectiveness in communication and enable greater understanding and appreciation of others’ similarities and differences.

Adjusting Your Communication Style

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
—Elbert Hubbard

We have the most difficulty understanding the communication from people who are opposite from our task- and people-focused communication patterns—the wiring of our brains is very different. We cannot expect our sponsor, manager, peers and team members, to use our communication style when working with us. We have to adapt our communications to other's needs. We cannot take it personally when our sponsor or manager does not respond as we think he or she should. We have to understand our sponsor from his or her perspective, and think about how he or she needed information based on their preferred communication style.

In any relationship, the person who wants to change the relationship is the one who needs to adapt to the other person's preferred communication style. No matter your role, whether you are peer, employee, or sponsor, if you are the one who wants change in a relationship, it is your job to adapt to the other person's communication style. For example, if your sponsor has a high Influence style with a Dominant backup, he or she likes a fast pace, wants the big picture first with a clear request, instead of lots of details building up to a request after several conversations. He or she wants to make decisions quickly and is open to changing his mind frequently; he or she likes to know who is aligned with whom and wants more friendly interaction. He or she even appreciates an emotional appeal for action, because he or she wants to be inspired. In this case, you should avoid being too focused on facts, data, and logic when presenting to this sponsor trying to lead him or her to see all the research you have done so that he or she can arrive at the same conclusions. This sponsor will most likely view this approach as too detailed oriented, too analytical, and much too distant for him or her.

When you begin to adapt your communication style, your will experience new results. Begin to observe what communication style your sponsor is using in his or her conversations. Ask your peers and colleagues who have a similar style to help you brainstorm your sponsor communication challenges. For maximum engagement, adjust your discussion style and information sharing to the receiver's style to meet his or her needs. Here are some helpful hints for adapting your communication:

What each sponsor communication style is looking for:

Dominant Style is looking for RESULTS Steady Style is looking for SECURITY
Be confident Tell them HOW something will be done
Close, take action Provide reassurances they need
Disagree with facts, not people Be yourself, relaxed, authentic, casual
Focus on issues Take action when you feel you have their trust
Use emphatic hand gestures Assure them they made the right decision
Do not be overpowered by them Introduce them to others; help them build relationships
Let them win (you win too) Show them your follow-up after action
Move faster than normal Give them the facts and the step-by-step actions
Match their intensity and strength, but stay friendly  
Influence Style is looking for THE EXPERIENCE Compliant Style is looking for INFORMATION
Allow them to talk, but keep focus, and keep asking questions focused on topic Answer questions with facts and logic
Minimize interest in details of topic Don't be too personal
Focus on forest, not trees Be direct and friendly
Provide structure and steps, ensure they have something to follow up on Do not hug or stand too close
Give recognition Be professional, not too relaxed
Listen to their stories Expect skepticism
Have fun with them Follow through on details
“Jump” to close during high-energy moment Give information, then close; close when they say they are ready
Stay positive, upbeat, high energy  

You will also be more effective when you adapt your style to the situation. It is better to use the Influence Communication Style when thinking about selling ideas, engaging others in getting results, or wanting to inspire engagement. If a team needs to think about how work would be done, then using the Steady Communication Style makes sense. When logic, research, problem solving, and procedures are needed, the Compliant-to-Standards window is helpful.

Hayashi, S. K. (2010). Conversations for change: 12 ways to say it right when it matters most. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hayashi, S. K. (2013). Conversations that get results and inspire collaboration. New York: McGraw Hill.

© 2013, Shawn Kent Hayashi
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



Related Content