Workplace conflict and misunderstanding can come through failure to comunicate well. For this reason we need to improve our understanding of different communication styles. One common difference is between Informational & Relationship focussed communication.

All communication between people has two aspects to it: the exchange of information and the development of a relationship. Some people are more focussed on the information while others are more focussed on the relationship. These preferences are partly influenced by culture and gender. Typically, the Western preference is more towards information, while Indigenous cultures are more relational. Similarly, men tend more towards information exchange while women are more relationship orientated. But across all cultures and genders, individual people will have different preferences on the spectrum.

This can lead to all kinds of problems.

The Information-centred approach to communication is a bit like a pyramid. You start with the key point you want to get across, then you bring in a few more key points to support this central message, and then you add more and more information around this main point you are trying to make. You can see this in the way a newspaper article is written: the main points are always in the first paragraph and by the time you get to the end of the article you are reading trivial details that could easily be cut to fit the available page space.

The relation-centred approach turns this pyramid upside down. You start with the seemingly trivial details, jumping around from topic to topic in a way that can look random. What appears to be inconsequential banter serves a vital purpose of establishing the relationship and building trust. Only after enough time has been spent “beating around the bush” can the main, or contentious, points be discussed.

When an information-centred communicator (A) talks to a relationship-centred communicator (B), what typically happens is that the message is not heard or engaged with, because the need to embed the message within a strong relationship has not been met. (A) can come across as arrogant and rude, only concerned with their own message and not interested in other people.

Similarly, when (B) talks to (A), it is (A) who switches off. (A) is trying to discern what is the main point that (B) is trying to make. (They may even say, impatiently, “Get to the point”.) Because (A)’s focus is on getting information, they don’t give the warm social signals that (B) is looking for – which means that (B) must spend longer trying to build the relationship. Eventually (A) loses patience and (B) feels rejected.

(A) likes to have their information presented in a highly structured form – and preferably in writing. They like their meetings to be scheduled and with minutes taken. They like memos, lists with bullet point points, “Action points”, PowerPoint presentations, books and brochures.

(B) likes impromptu conversations around the water cooler or over coffee. They prefer to speak to someone – either on the phone or (better) in person – than sending an email or a memo. They tend to want to communicate as things occur to them – catching the person they want to speak to on the fly as they walk past rather than waiting and setting an appointment. They believe that if you care about them, you will care about what they have to say. Priority is given to information that either comes from someone they care about, or that directly impacts someone they care about.

By considering the communication preferences of others in the workplace, we can improve our communcation skills and take further steps on the path to workplace conflict resolution.

Mike Lowe
Helping individuals and teams get into flow

Understanding different communication styles – Informational vs Relationship focussed.

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