Me and Mr. X

by Shana Montesol Johnson

There are some people who you naturally click with – and others who you just don’t. You don’t “get” them, and you can tell they don’t “get” you.  What happens when you have to work with someone like that?  Figuring out — and adapting to — their preferred communication style can help you build a better working relationship.

I wish I’d known this years ago. I had been asked to work on a project team that needed someone with experience in design and facilitation of workshops.  The project manager was a Mr. X, a very formal Asian gentleman who had a Ph.D. in engineering and many years of experience working as a technical specialist in a large international development organization.

I was excited about the project and had plenty of ideas for how we could make it successful, using participatory approaches.  At the first team meeting, I presented these ideas enthusiastically and compellingly (or so I thought).  Mr. X just nodded, and said he would consider them.  I didn’t hear anything back for a long time.  When I followed up, Mr. X politely thanked me for my input but said that my proposed new approaches were not necessary.  We would simply follow what other similar projects, conducted elsewhere in the organization, had done in the past.

All of my attempts at convincing him proved fruitless.  He was wholly unimpressed by my snazzy ideas or my prediction that my proposed approach would lead to better results.  So I came up with other ideas. He rejected all of them. He had no interest in trying something new or risky.  He was focused (fixated, it seemed to me!) on following proven procedures and relying on precedents to develop a coherent process.

We clearly did not “get” each other.

Had I known then about preferred communication styles, I could have quickly figured out that Mr. X’s preferred communication style was Systematic and that communicating in my default Spirited style would not be effective. (By the way, the other two communication styles are Direct and Considerate.)

Systematic Communication Style

Strengths: People who prefer a Systematic communication style are typically thorough, precise, and accurate.  They are conscientious, orderly, objective, and diplomatic.  They focus on facts, and do not put much stock in opinions or emotions.

Disadvantages: They tend to focus on the details, sometimes at the expense of big picture thinking.  They may be slow to make decisions or take action because they want to gather and analyze more data before acting – falling prey to paralysis by analysis. Typically, they dislike taking risks. They may be seen as aloof; they can be hard to read.  They may be perfectionists.

Clues to a Systematic Communication Style: You can recognize people who are most comfortable with this style of communication by the way they speak – precisely, relatively slowly, and with a soft volume. They do not show emotions.  They listen more than they speak; they ask rather than tell.  Their handshake is brief.  Their workspace is orderly and tidy.

Tips for Better Communication: If I were still working with Mr. X, I’d do well to consider the following tips for communicating with someone whose preferred style is Systematic.

  • Focus on facts, rather than opinions or feelings.  Back up your arguments with data.
  • Don’t lead with the bottom line first; give the background on the situation or recommendation you plan to discuss.
  • Be precise. Don’t speak in vague generalities.
  • Be aware of and honor precedents.
  • Do your homework – gather background information, and be prepared to share it.
  • Be thorough and organized.
  • Be tactful and diplomatic.
  • Be reserved – tone down your enthusiasm.  Speak more slowly and softly.
  • Give them ample time to make decisions.

Without knowing about preferred communication styles, I stumbled upon some approaches that helped me connect with Mr. X.  He was more open to my subsequent ideas when I presented them in terms of precedents.  Rather than propose “ideas,” I shared my research on past projects, and highlighted those that had adopted approaches similar to what I advocated.  He seemed to become more comfortable with me when I mirrored his manner of speaking more slowly and softly, and less animatedly.

By luck, instinct, and trial and error, I made my way through the initial rough patches, and in the end, Mr. X and I developed a good working relationship. To my surprise, he requested that I remain on the project and expand my role long after my initial assignment had ended.  However, I could have avoided some headaches early on had I understood how to adjust to his preferred communication style.

Have you worked with someone like Mr. X? What helped you to communicate effectively?  Do you yourself prefer the Systematic style of communication? If so, how would you advise the rest of us to communicate effectively with you?  Please share in the Comments section below.

And stay tuned for next week’s post on understanding the Considerate communication style.

Photo by Janet McKnight
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