Adapting our communication styles

I once had a conversation with a leader who was struggling in her role. One comment stuck with me – she said “I am who I am and people can take it or leave it. Changing my communication style would make me untrue to myself.” Given that her communication style was often harsh and abrupt, this approach was not working well.

So how can we change our communication styles without being inauthentic? While searching for tips and suggestions I came across some advice on wikiHow. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t aimed at academic leaders, but it still seems useful.

Adapting your communication style

  1. Assess the situation. How will the context influence your engagement with others? A joke that you  might tell to a close friend could be inappropriate for a department meeting. Hosting a visiting college president might require more formal communication than meeting with day-to-day colleagues.
  2. Identify the goal. The setting and approach you choose should match your goals for the communication. Do you want to build relationships? Then you might meet informally over coffee. Do you need a team to agree on process steps? Then you might want a formal meeting with an agenda and follow-up notes.
  3. Understand the audience. What is your relationship to the people who will hear your message? What do you know about their communication styles and preferences? For large presentations, consider doing an audience analysis to learn more about who will receive your message and the best way to reach them.
  4. Choose the best method. Your communication style depends on the method of communication, which in turn depends on the situation. Are you giving a one-way presentation before a large group? Are you meeting one-on-one with a trusted colleague? Or are you promoting the institution via social media?  Each of these would require a different tone and level of formality.
  5. Be intentional with words and body language. Pay attention to how you come across, both verbally and non-verbally. One key reminder from the article – use technical jargon only if you’re sure the audience will understand.
  6. Monitor audience feedback. People offer feedback in a variety of ways. They might ask questions or give nonverbal reactions through facial expressions and tone of voice. You may need to adjust your style to be sure they understand your points.

With practice, I’ve found it easier to adjust my communication style to the needs of the audience without losing my authentic voice. Have you seen leaders who do this well? What did you learn from observing them?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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