Maryanne O’Brien unpacks how understanding communication styles improves your ability to be heard.
- The keys to better conversations
- The four communication styles–and how to master yours
- How to bridge the gap between your style and others’
Maryanne has spent her career helping leaders and teams learn how to consciously communicate, cultivate empathy, and deepen trust. She is the author of The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work, which was born out of more than a decade of original research. Her proprietary self-assessment helps you identify your communication style––Expressive, Reserved, Direct, or Harmonious––raise your self-awareness and build the communication skills needed to create a positive impact at work.
- Book: The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work
- LinkedIn: Maryanne O’Brien
- Style Assessment: TheElevatedCommunicator.com
- Website: TheElevatedCommunicator.com
Book: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz
Maryanne, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today.
Well, I’m excited to talk about communication and, specifically, your book The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work. So, I’m going to start you off with an easy one. What’s the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made about humans and communicating over your career?
Well, I’ve been in communications in some form my entire career, starting out in advertising and then moving into kind of growth and development. And I think the thing that struck me the most, as I’ve really gotten into this subject, is that if we want to become better communicators, we have to become better people. There’s just no way around it because, as we’re developing skills and really developing our own self-awareness and our ability to listen, have empathy and really understand ourselves and others, we, naturally, become better people over that kind of arc and journey to developing new skills.
That’s fascinating. And when you say better people, you mean like virtue, like our goodness, and then like an Aristotle or sense of the word?
I do. I mean, like our character strengthens.
So, if you think about listening is one of the most important skills whenever you’re learning to become a better communicator, and it’s impossible to become a better listener if you’re not patient. If you don’t have some level of empathy and connection with people so that they can really know that you’re listening and connected with them if you aren’t willing to kind of keep an open mind. Like, it’s hard to listen without judgment if you’re not open to new people, you’re not open to new perspectives and new ideas.
And so, as we develop skills and become more aware of our own style and self-awareness and self-understanding, we naturally start to see ways to improve and grow. And so, one of the pieces and one of the philosophies that the work is kind of grounded around is this idea of the micro-evolution of self, the day by day, bit by bit we get better over time. And we do that through understanding kind of, you know, deepening our understanding, what we know. So, there’s some building skills. There’s usually some knowledge you have to have.
Then there’s what you do, the practices that support our ability to become better communicators, and, ultimately, it’s who we are. Success is a natural outcome of who we are, and we all want to be successful in our careers. That’s why we listen to things like How to be Awesome at Your Job is that we want what we do to matter. We want to have purpose. We want to have success.
And the reality is that success isn’t something that we do or something that we have. It’s a natural outcome of how we treat people, how well we interact, how able we are to build trust with all kinds of people. And so, as we learn and grow and evolve and make small changes, we naturally become better people over time. And as we become better people, we become better communicators.
Okay. Very good. And I buy that, as I think about many of the skills associated with, well, just as you’ve said, with listening is sort of like, “Well, do I really care about you? Or, am I more interested in me and my fun interesting thoughts than your interesting thoughts? And am I more about being heard than hearing?” And there you go, that is like generosity or humility. These are character things. So, that totally resonates with me. Thank you.
Well, some of the styles are more naturally they’re better listeners. Other styles are more interested in talking, and so understanding all of the four different styles. The first one is expressive. They’re the largest at 37%. The second is reserved, they’re 25%. The third is direct, they’re 22% of the population. And then the fourth is harmonious, and they’re 16%.
And the percentages are interesting to kind of know because they represent different sizes in the workplace but each of them is really important and plays a different role in creating high-functioning, high-performing teams. And really learning to understand all of them and understand what are the benefits that they bring, what is the role that they play, what are their needs, what do they value, what are they motivated by, how do they make decisions.
There are all these different complexities around each style that, first of all, you need to understand yourself but then you also want to understand others because what happens, oftentimes, is whenever we run into style tensions, we end up falling into judgment. We’re human, we judge. It’s kind of a natural thing, especially when someone is different than us.
So, sometimes we might find that we hire people that are like us and our teams become really homogenous, and there are two styles, the expressives and the directs, that tend to dominate in work. And if we don’t make room for people who are reserved and people who have harmonious as their natural style, as their primary, we miss opportunities to really create more balanced teams and a wider perspective on nearly every situation and, specifically, when it comes to problem solving.
Well, I was just about to ask what’s the big idea behind The Elevated Communicator. It sounds like maybe you just shared it with me. Or, is there any other core message about the book you want to make sure to put out there?
So, the idea is that the better we know ourselves and the better we know others, it’s easier for us to bring out the best in ourselves and the best in others. But it really also comes to a level of as we raise our communication skills, we also need to raise our level of wellbeing and really look at how to manage our stress because every style has a spectrum that goes from healthy, when we’re at our best, to our style under stress, and it’s easy to slip into stress.
Like, we are in a pretty stressful environment in the world. Stress does not bring out the best in any style, so there’s a really deep level of self-awareness that happens as you start to really get to know your style and then the other pieces. Ultimately, how do you build those connections and build trust with people, because trust is always the Holy Grail, right? It’s always about psychological safety and “How do we build high-trust teams?”
But the only way we can do that is if we can have genuine conversations and feel safe enough with people to challenge ideas, to share something that is a different perspective, and to get our voice into the conversation whenever there is a really dominant perspective being held.
Okay. Very good. And so, these four styles, tell me, where do they come from? I don’t imagine you just made them up. Can you give us a bit of the story about the research, the validation? Like, how do we know there’s four, Maryanne, and not six?
Well, so I’ve done consulting for several years, and one of the things I’ve always liked to do is to use assessments to help people better see themselves and better able to see other people, and so I was looking for a really great communication assessment. And I have a strong background in quantitative and qualitative research, and I could tell some of them just weren’t as robust as I was used to.
And so, I decided I was going to go create one because I know how important this tool is in organizations, and I’ve been working with organizations on this level for a long time. And so, I went out and I did a giant quantitative study, and my hope was that most style assessments you see, whether it’s a personality, whatever, that we come back in these four tidy little quadrants, and that it would be…
High this, low that. Low this, low that.
Exactly. And so, what I found was, really, there were three primary dimensions that we communicate on. One of them is assertiveness. How forcefully do you share your opinion? Do you speak up? Are you expressive with your emotions and your opinions? The second is collaboration. How well do you work with people? Do you like to work alone? Do you like to work with others? How do you interact? Are you critical or are you supportive? And then the third is really about how you behave whenever you engage with people, so there’s a spectrum.
And it turned out that, rather than kind of falling into these nice little boxes, it’s easy to put a person in a box, but when it comes to communication, if there’s anything more complex than communication, it’s people. And these three dimensions actually formed more of a constellation, so every style has five really primary kind of shining stars that make it distinct, and that falls into this cluster analysis. And then there are some shared traits between some styles.
So, some styles will get along better than others, and that’s usually where you have some overlap. So, when I started to kind of step back and then I did probably a year and a half of qualitative research, going out to really add dimension and understanding of “What does it mean if somebody is expressive? How does that show up in the workplace?” And how we communicate at work is often different than the way we communicate at home. So, there’s parts.
If you read through all the styles, you’ll start to see, like, “Gosh, I feel like I’m a little bit of that aspect in me,” because we do share some of those qualities, and that’s kind of that constellation approach, but also because somebody who is really direct at work can be harmonious at home. And it seems counterintuitive but sometimes they’re like, “You know what, I don’t want to lead everywhere in my life.” And, conversely, I’ve seen people who are harmonious be really direct at home. Those two are kind of the most different of the four styles.
Okay. Well, so how do I learn our own style and that of others so that we can make use of this?
Well, so I would recommend you go and you take the communication style assessment, which is free, at TheElevatedCommunicator.com. I wanted the assessment to be accessible for everyone because, for a long time, I had led StrengthsFinders and other programs where people would get the code and they’d throw away the book. And I was like, “You know, let’s not do that.” If you really are going to read the book and get into your style, which I would also recommend, but I’d love to give you a flavor for all of them today, but I would, first, start by taking the style assessment.
And on the site, you’re going to see a couple of brief descriptions that will help you to understand yourself kind of at a glance, and that will give you a good look into things. And if I could just take you kind of briefly through what the four are and how they show up, you’ll start to see…we start to recognize it in ourselves and in others.
The other piece I would ask you to kind of keep an ear toward as we’re going through this is how you can start to see, like, “Oh, I can see how those styles would get along and how those styles might have some kind of tension points,” because it’s, often, those style tensions that create the people problems in our job.
So, if I start with the expressives, because they’re the largest and most dominant group in an organization, so they are super collaborative. They build high-trust collaborative teams, that’s what they really care about. They’re open, they’re assertive, they ask lots of questions. They really have a strong need to make a personal connection. So, they won’t feel connected to you if they don’t know you on some level. So, they will often ask you personal questions about your family, about your interests, “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?” They really want to know you.
They also bring the most energy. They want work to feel like it’s fun. They’re perceptive, curious. They ask the most questions. And when they’re at their best, they bring out the best in other people. They are comfortable bringing groups together. They’re really good at defusing conflict because they want the team to get back into a healthy place.
And whenever they’re under that stress side of their style, then they end up being a little bit more sarcastic. They’ll start to dominate a conversation. When you were talking earlier, they’re the ones who would get distracted easily and start a side conversation because they would rather be talking than listening. And so, you can kind of get a picture that gets painted of what that style is like.
Reserved is really interesting. They are the quintessential team player. They really care about having influence. They’re confident. They form their opinions quickly. What is distinctive about them as well is that they’re more private and guarded at work. They like to kind of keep things in a professional realm but they’re extremely great networkers and they’re very personable.
They’re the type of person who really wants to help see other people be at their best. So, they will give them input on like, “Hey, I think you can bring up your game over here. Here’s what the team really needs,” because they care that the team operates at its best, and they’re really thoughtful and deliberate.
When they get under stress, what happens is they don’t love to make decisions. They like to have a lot of influence on them but they don’t want to be the one, ultimately, responsible for it, and so they will wait for others to take the lead. They might withdraw. If they get under stress, they put their head down and they start doing the work, and relationships become more transactional and a little bit more serious. So, you can start to see how there’s a little bit of a spectrum in each one.
When you look at direct, they’re probably one of the easier ones to identify, too, because they get straight into work. They are so responsible, focused, thorough, candid, really independent. They don’t need to work with anybody. They love to work alone. The best conversations are brief, focused, meaningful. They like every meeting to start and stop on time. No small talk. No need to get into anything personal. And they’re the ones who will rein a conversation in if it starts to wander too far.
So, their strength is really to help teams operate at a higher level. They’re really clear and focused. And they inspire the level of accountability that they bring to others. If people kind of don’t meet their expectations, when they’re under stress, they will steamroll, they’ll damage relationships pretty quickly, they’ll tell others what to do and how to do it so that they can get it done as quickly as possible, and they’re super intolerant about any tangents at all. So, that will start to kind of set them off.
And then harmonious, which is the fourth style, they are the glue that kind of keeps teams together. They have the most people-focused approach to the way they think about things. So, whenever decisions are being made, they put it through like, “How is it going to affect other people? How is it going to affect relationships?” They are the best listeners, cooperative, really supportive, and caring. So, they bring the human quality to teams that the other styles don’t consider to the same depth.
Because they are so cooperative, when they’re under stress, they become more of that. So, they can become…they can comply too much. They can water down their opinions. They can become too cooperative and really become quiet. So, all of these styles, each of them plays a role in creating really healthy teams, and we need to make room for some of those voices that aren’t naturally going to jump into the conversation, and invite them in.
And with that, I guess all sorts of implications could pop up with regard to, “Oh, if I prefer this and someone else might prefer something else, we might consider this particular intervention or approach or adaptation.” I guess I’m curious to hear, since that’d be quite the matrix and difficult to maybe fully elucidate in the time we have, are there any sort of universal best practices and worst practices here when it comes to bridging gaps with others?
Well, listening is the first thing I would recommend every style puts at its focus. When we make it a point to listen and really be present and not thinking about our response, or waiting for the person to stop talking, that is always a great idea.
So, this idea of kind of flexing your style a little bit, if you can start to recognize what other styles need, and so if you understand, “If I’m direct and if I have no need for small talk, but someone is expressive and they do,” so expressive and harmonious both have a need from having some sort of connection to be made, is to find a way to start every meeting with some sort of connection so that people feel like that need is met but don’t linger on it for too long.
You don’t want to waste 10 minutes of every meeting trying to foster connections. There should definitely be time where you’re building that into your teambuilding, and building those social connections. But find a way to give everybody a little bit of what they need because if our needs go unmet for too long, we’re going to go into some sort of stress response, so fight, flight, or freeze.
We either want to push and steamroll over or we go into flight and we leave, and this is also in organization. I‘ve seen a lot of people who haven’t felt seen and heard or valued because their needs aren’t being met, and that big part of it is what is prompting them to leave. And then we go into freeze, which is we shut down, we disengage. So, we’re physically there but we’re not really there.
So, I would start with listening and it’s not that difficult, actually. I know it sounds, whenever you’re trying to mentally hold it in your head, but whenever you start to look at what each person needs. So, the expressives, they need some sort of personal engagement. Reserved, they need to have some level of influence. Direct, they need every conversation to have meaning. And harmonious needs to have it to be really respectful.
And those pieces, getting to know the different styles is so important because each of us has a different way that we build trust, so we have biases when it comes to building trust. And if that’s, ultimately, our goal is to find ways to work well together, to be more effective in our roles, to build trust and relationships that allow us to navigate the challenges that seem to come out daily, we’ve got to invest a little bit in getting to know other people and understanding what their needs are.
And when you say the direct folks need meaning, I am interpreting that to mean meaning as in the exchange we’re having results in output, results, activity, stuff in the world being different, as opposed to it’s meaningful, Maryanne, that you and I are feeling connected to each other. Is that a fair interpretation of what you mean by meaning for the direct?
It is. It has to drive to some sort of actionable outcome.
And so, it can’t just be like, “Oh, it felt really good to connect.” It’s like, “What’s the outcome coming here?” because they really have a high level of responsibility and they keep the trains running on time, so they’re the ones that want to know that the conversation is leading to something that’s going to make a decision. It’s going to inform something. It’s going to help me see a new perspective.
Gotcha. Okay. Well, so listening, that’s huge, certainly, and having a sense for what the other party really needs, their desire and how you can meet that. Are there any best practices when it comes to listening in terms of this makes a world of difference in terms of really gaining that understanding? I don’t know if there’s any attention tricks or particular power questions that yield lots of insight. Or, how do we listen optimally, Maryanne?
Well, there are a couple things I’d recommend. First is eliminate as many distractions. Like, eliminate the distractions you can. Turn off your notifications. Put your phone away. Studies have shown that if our phone is just even visible, 20% of our attention goes to our phone because it might ring and we don’t even realize that part of our attention is being drained.
I would make it a practice to set an intention before you have a conversation. We tend to listen best when we think the conversations are important, instead of we’re kind of in that autopilot, like, “Oh, I’m just going to float into a conversation, float into a meeting,” that we’re half present, is to really make it a point to be present.
And then, for certain styles, because harmonious, they’re good listeners, every other style, especially for expressives, I would recommend that you mute yourself in every conversation and speak one time for every three times that you have the impulse because people who are expressive just have a natural desire to share their ideas and they get excited that they don’t even recognize that they’re contributing far more than anyone else and they’re not making room for other people in the conversation.
So, I would dial up your intentionality around conversations and how well you listen, and I would work to really strengthen your self-awareness so that you can become aware of how you’re coming across to people.
I like what you had to say about when you think a conversation is important, you have some intentionality there, you naturally do more listening as opposed to, “Oh, there’s just this meeting. I got to show up at that meeting.” So, could you give us some examples? Do you recommend like setting a very precise articulation of that intention, like, “In this conversation, I am going to try to understand why Bob is so worried about this thing”?
Like, that’s my goal, my intention. Or, “What I hope to achieve in this conversation is getting a sense of what would be truly most motivating and exciting to the team about this project.” Are those fair approaches? Or how do you think about intentionality?
Yes, I think both of those are great examples. The more intentional you are, the more effectively you will show up, and the easier it will be to kind of follow through on that intention. So, I would look at, if you’re going into a meeting, what is it that you need to be able to listen to somebody who has a different perspective, perhaps?
So, if there’s somebody that you know, because we all start to kind of categorize people. It’s like, “Oh, this person always has great ideas and I listen whenever they’re talking, and I want to build upon those.” “This person always shoots everything down.” “This person has the most whacked-out ideas that never make any sense.”
So, if you can set an intention that, no matter who’s talking, “I want to stay open to what they’re saying. I’m going to try to at least understand where they’re coming from.” You don’t have to agree with everyone but if you can at least try to figure out “What is it about that idea that they like?” People want to feel seen and heard. That makes you feel valued.
So, if you at least can demonstrate to them that you’re present, that you’re really listening, that you hear them, that will go a long way into building trust. And then you can say, “You know what, I understood what you said. I see things differently.” We don’t have to agree with everything but the idea is staying open and having that willingness to listen.
So, I think if I was guiding someone toward this, I’d say, “What do you think you need going into this? Is it that you need to be more open? Is it that you need to watch for interrupting? Is it that you’re not going to shut down whenever somebody shares something that you disagree with? Can you watch for your biases? Can you watch for what triggers you?” because all of those kinds of communication influences affect how well we listen.
That’s good. Well, Maryanne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?
The piece I would just remind people to start looking for is what is it that they need whenever they’re communicating with people? And how do they help people understand what it is they need? So, we’ll do team-sharing, that’s one great way to start building connections with people. And whenever we all share our styles, so share your styles with the people you work with, and share, like, “Hey, you know what I realize about myself that I hadn’t really understood was I really need some time whenever we first start talking to have some sort of connection.”
And ask them what they need because then that’s an easy way for people to say, “You know what, that’s exactly what I don’t need. I need to get straight into the work.” And so, how do we find that kind of common ground? And the more that we can let people understand us, understand what our needs are, and give them an opportunity to help us meet those needs, and be willing to give them an opportunity to have their needs met, I think that those are some of kind of just basic pieces of making a great connection with someone is to be open, to be a little bit more vulnerable, let people get to know you a little bit, and kind of respect what they need as well.
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Sure. One of the ones that I love, I like Stephen Covey’s work. It’s just been influential in my life, and I love the one that he has about trust, which is around, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” And if we thought about the idea that every conversation that we have has an opportunity to either build trust or erode trust, and if we cared about them and stepped into them with that intentionality, it would be a much easier world to live in and to recognize that everybody sees the world differently.
So, how can we be able to accept people who have different views, stay open to them so we can see diverse perspectives, and build trust with people who aren’t like us? It’s easy to build trust with people that operate the way that you do. And just to stay open to all kinds of people and different styles.
And could you share a favorite book?
I really love the The Four Agreements. That is one of my favorites. And so, I think that that idea of having that kind of code of conduct and really getting to know yourself well, because that whole idea of the first one being be impeccable with your word. When you take responsibility for what you say and do, and you choose your words carefully, there’s far less room for the tensions and the people problems that we run into at work.
The second one around, don’t take anything personally. We recognize that what other people are going through and what they say and do doesn’t have to be about you. It’s usually what they’re going through, and just let it go, and not personalize things. The third one around not making assumptions. Like, I love the idea that people have the courage to ask questions and clarify things, and have the willingness to kind of step in and clarify conversations so that you can stay away from misunderstandings.
And then the idea, the fourth one about always doing your best. Every day is different, and people have been going through a lot, and we’re always trying to do our best and it looks different on different days. But if that’s our intention is that every day, “I’m going to do the best that I can and show up in the best way that I can,” I think there’s a lot of value in those four agreements, and they sound simple.
Living them is a practice and it comes back to that idea that if you live these, you will become a better person. And there’s nothing more powerful than self-awareness and the ability to see things and make those course corrections. There’s this old idea, like, “You can’t change what you don’t see.”
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
If you go to TheElevatedCommunicator.com, you will find the assessment so you can take the style assessment. You can take it for free. You can share it with your colleagues, share it with your friends and family. Start that conversation. There’s also a monthly blog that I do called “Ideas to Elevate,” that help people to put practices into play because that’s how we get better. We have to kind of continue to build those skills through practice.
And then on LinkedIn, I’m doing some online trainings and some different things every so often that are free for people so that we can get into these skills and really help people develop those practices that change the way they communicate.
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Well, I’m going to encourage you to really get to know your style and become aware of how you’re communicating from either that healthy side of your expression when you’re at your best, and how well you know you can communicate when you’re really intentional, to when you’re slipping into stress and what that looks and feels like in your body because we’ll always be able to feel stressed in our body, and that’ll start to tell us how we’re communicating.
And to build in some sort of wellbeing practices that help you raise that level of resilience that you have because we communicate from that level of self-awareness and wellbeing, that combination. And when stress starts to become too much, we’re going to slip into those lower expressions, and that’s when we really damage our relationships.
So, I would encourage you to get to know your style, start to recognize that style spectrum, and develop some sort of simple practices that keep you really intentional about how you want to build relationships, how you want to show up, how you want to become a better communicator.
All right. Maryanne, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your elevated communications.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.