How to use Communication Styles to Drive Project Success

Darragh Broderick
By | Updated May 15, 2017 | 7 min read
Communication Drive Project Success

Understanding communication styles is pivotal to executing a successful project. As we have covered on the BrightWork blog before, ineffective communication is the primary cause of project failure 33% of the time and has a negative impact on project success more than 50% of the time according to research conducted by the Project Management Institute (PMI).


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The most useful skill to develop and use to combat this bane of project success is the ability to understand and adapt to different communication styles, while also appreciating the impact of your own style on a group dynamic.

As Mark Murphy explained in Forbes, no one communication style is inherently better than another. Picking the wrong style for a particular audience, whether it’s one person or a thousand, shuts down listening and can spell trouble.

Learning to build flexibility around your preferred style allows others to more successfully hear the important things you need to communicate. Below are the four ‘core’ styles of communication that provide great insight into basic communication dynamics.

This article will delve into some established schools of thought around communication styles and help you apply them in the context of your project teams. I will begin with the four traditional styles of communication before looking at some more ‘new school’ approaches to communication.


The Four Traditional Styles of Communication

1. Passive Communication

This is a style in which individuals have developed a pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, and identifying and meeting their needs. As a result, passive individuals do not respond overtly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations.

Instead, they allow grievances and annoyances to mount, usually unaware of the buildup.

But once they have reached their high tolerance threshold for unacceptable behavior, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident.

After the outburst, however, they may feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive.


2. Aggressive Communication

These individuals express their feelings and opinions and advocate for their needs in a way that violates the rights of others. Thus, aggressive communicators can even be abusive.


3. Passive-Aggressive Communication

This is a style in which individuals appear passive on the surface but are really acting out anger in a subtle, indirect, or behind-the-scenes way.

People who develop a pattern of passive-aggressive communication usually feel powerless, stuck, and resentful – in other words, they feel incapable of dealing directly with the object of their resentments. Instead, they express their anger by subtly undermining the object (real or imagined) of their resentments.


4. Assertive Communication

This is a style in which individuals clearly state their opinions and feelings, and firmly advocate for their rights and needs without violating the rights of others. These individuals value themselves, their time, and their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs and are strong advocates for themselves while being very respectful of the rights of others.

These four styles can be considered an inherent trait in individuals but can definitely be addressed in order to develop communication skills. Most important, is the ability to identify these styles and adapt your approach in order to successfully collaborate.


Mark Murphy and Four Styles of Communication

Moving away from the traditional school of thought and returning to Mark Murphy’s work, these styles capture the four distinct communication styles of team members.


1. The Analytical Communicator

A person who is an Analytical communicator likes hard data, real numbers, and tend to be suspicious of people who aren’t in command of the facts and data.

They typically like very specific language and dislike vague language. For example, when someone tells you ‘sales are positive’ you’re likely to think ‘what does positive mean? 5.2% or 8.9%? Give me a number!’ And those with an Analytical communication style often have little patience for lots of feeling and emotional words in communication.

One big plus of having an Analytical communication style is that because you like communication to be fairly unemotional, you’re often able to look at issues logically and dispassionately. This means others tend to see you as having high levels of data and informational expertise.

A possible negative to having an Analytical communication style is that you may strike certain people as being cold or unfeeling. For example, when interacting with people like Personal communicators (who tend to like personal relationships), it’s possible for Analytical communicators to get irritated and terse.


2. The Intuitive Communicator

An Intuitive communicator likes the big picture, avoids getting bogged down in details, and cuts right to the chase. They don’t need to hear things in perfect linear order but prefer instead a broad overview that lets them easily skip right to the endpoint.

For example, some people, like Functional communicators, will tell you things step-by-step (they start with A, then go to B, then C, then D, then E, etc.). But this can drive the intuitive communicator nuts; they’d rather jump right to Z.

The advantage in having an Intuitive communication style is that your communication is quick and to the point. Intuitive communicators aren’t stalled by needing too many details and are comfortable with big ideas and out-of-the-box thinking. As they have the ability to ‘think big’, they can also enjoy challenging convention.

One downside of having an Intuitive communication style is not always having enough patience when in a situation that actually requires getting into nitty-gritty detail.

Typically, Intuitive communicators have the most difficulty dealing with Functional communicators (those are the ‘process-driven’ people, they’re very methodical, walk through things step-by-step, and like nitty-gritty detail).


3. The Functional Communicator

This group likes processes, details, timelines, and well-thought-out plans. They like to communicate things in a step-by-step fashion so nothing gets missed.

One big plus of having a Functional communication style is that your communication generally hits all the details and nothing gets missed. When functional communicators are on a team, people will often turn to them to be the implementer, because they have confidence in their love of process and detail.

And because they’re focused on things like process and detail, they’re the person who is typically asked to play Devil’s Advocate.

The potential downside of having a Functional communication style is that you may risk losing the attention of your audience, especially when talking to Intuitive communicators (those are the ‘big picture’ people who skip to the end and don’t get bogged down in too much detail).


4. The Personal Communicator

A Personal communicator values emotional language and connection, and use that as their mode of discovering what others are really thinking. They find value in assessing not just how people think, but how they feel.

They tend to be a good listener and diplomat, can smooth over conflicts, and are typically concerned with the health of their numerous relationships.

A benefit of having a Personal communication style is that communication allows you to build deep personal relationships with others. People will often turn to personal communicators as the ‘glue’ that holds groups together. And are typically able to pick-up ‘vibes’ that others may miss because they’re attuned to the emotional aspect of communication.

A potential downside of having a Personal communication style is that you may occasionally be derided as ‘touchy-feely.’ For example, when dealing with Analytical communicators (people who like data, hard numbers, logical discussions), it is possible for Personal communicators to become exasperated and emotionally upset.



So, what’s your communication style?

As Mark Murphy outlined, no style is better than another. The key is to first understand your own particular communication style so you can match your communication style to that of your audience. Whether you’re speaking with your boss or stakeholder, leading a meeting, or just collaborating on a project as a team member, matching your communication styles to the folks you need to hear your words is an essential step to effective communication.



Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook

Darragh Broderick
Darragh Broderick

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