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How Social Styles can help you achieve your communication goals

Using social styles to adapt how you communicate with colleagues is a good way to reduce friction and promote teamwork. When under pressure, it can be surprising what you might find out about yourself and others, particularly as tendencies can get exaggerated and change.

Notice your reactions

Do you pay attention to what is happening when other people’s behaviour gets to you? Perhaps it’s when another person fails to ask you questions and instead jumps straight to solution mode? Do you hate it when people give you too much background information? Or wish someone would hurry up and make a decision – any decision! Maybe you feel unable to vent when the printer isn’t working for fear your anger will upset someone else?

These are all examples of clashes between different communication preferences or Social Styles.

Social Styles

Social-Style theory is based on work originated by David Merrill, who used factor analysis to identify two scales, assertiveness and responsiveness. This results in a model that has four quadrants that identify the four Social Styles. These social styles are “Driving,” “Expressive,” “Amiable” and “Analytical.”  A common response to the model is to say you fit into more than one category, which is correct.

However, while we are all unique, everyone has a default or dominant style which can change in response to stress (more of that later).

The start point is understanding yourself and what makes you feel both comfortable and uncomfortable. Recognising how you like to make decisions and your need for control will help you to communicate requests, manage your own defensiveness and avoid triggering defensiveness in others. Managers and leaders particularly need to be aware. With this insight you can adapt your behaviour and the result will be better communication, improved relationships and team dynamics.

What’s your style?

To quickly identify another person’s Social Style (or your own) ask:

  • Does the person tend to prioritise the task or the relationship?
  • Does this person tend to ask questions or make statements? Where do you want to go for lunch versus I’m going to Pret, who is coming?

You can plot the results on the graph below to identify their Social Style.

Social Styles quadrant

While the model implies that there are only four types there is infinite scope along each axis. Each quadrant can be further divided to identify a secondary style depending on how close you sit to the boundary with another style.

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)

Apply this model to your social interactions, particularly when making requests and you should see a difference in the response you get. Change your style to be closer to the other person’s to appear more reasonable, for example, an Amiable should prepare in advance, focus on goals and be realistic if they hope to influence a Driver. If you share a Social Style you may need to change your approach in order to avoid a power struggle. Practise will build your confidence and ability to flex your style in a more naturalistic way. Be aware in your recruitment decisions that we tend to gravitate to people with similar Social Styles and because we focus on the traits that are like our own, we can misjudge another person’s personality type.

Under pressure  

When a team member is under pressure look for changes in their Social Style as this can give you an indication of how they are coping.

When people experience stress, they can find their Social Style altered temporarily before reverting back to their preferred state. This is referred to as the Z pattern as this is the shape the process takes across the grid. The first move is to the next quadrant on the horizontal axis as this shares the same left or right brain component. For example, when an Amiable is stressed she is likely to move to Expressive before Analytical and so on.

Increased hybrid and remote working has amplified a lot of pressures, for example, an employee who has a natural preference to separate their work and personal lives will find it hard to do so. Others who are Amiable/Expressive have found virtual meetings deeply unsatisfying – a poor replacement for the face-to-face interaction they usually enjoy.

We have written here about the upside of lockdown for the different Social Styles.


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