Learning How Team Members Communicate

For most of my life I assumed that everyone communicated in the same way I did.

team members communicate

Here are the steps I took to learn how to communicate with my team members
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Turns out they don’t.

I assumed they were motivated by the same things I was. I assumed they were motivated in the same way that I was. I also assumed that everyone else instinctively understood me. In retrospect I guess it was a little self-centered to surmise that the Creator of the universe implanted a special “you will know what Matt is thinking at all times” gene in the entire human population when I have yet to fully comprehend my wife even when she is actually speaking to me.

That would have been awesome though…unicorns and lollipops for everyone!

When I first became a leader it was a magical time of peace, understanding, and campfires with s’mores and ghost stories.

Except that it wasn’t. Dang. Apparently not everyone was motivated by money and not everyone reacted to a crisis (like a server crashing) by going into full panic mode. What a pity.

I remember one direct report in particular who was a senior-level programmer, which is code for “uses a lot of big words around me that I don’t understand.” He was as cool as the proverbial cucumber or other side of the pillow. (Side note: I have left plenty of cucumbers on my kitchen counter and they are neither cool nor tasty).

When things went haywire, when servers crashed and code was broke, he remained calm. My arms flailed, my voice rose, and my heart was pounding. The situation called for immediate and all out panic. And panic meant frantic pacing and rolling heads. But he remained perfectly calm…and rational. It was downright annoying.

What I took as apathy was actually a little known trait called calmness.

Not only did I not understand him, I could not even relate to him. He was not like me and we had a hard time communicating. (Thankfully, we are still close friends to this day).

Over time, I learned how to communicate with him. But how?

3 steps I took to learn how to communicate with my team members:

1. I had them each take personality / communication tests.

Knowing personality styles is a big help. I like to think of them as narrowing down a person’s individuality and quirks to a limited range. High “DS” (from the DISC profile) types have some general similarities as other “DS” types so I have a starting point on communicating with them. The same goes for any personality types, except for the oddball who is even on all four. Avoid these people at all costs, perhaps even shun and ridicule them. Just kidding, lovely wife of mine.

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2. I asked direct questions.

Ultimately it comes down to getting to know the person. I’ve found that directly asking them things like “how are you best motivated,” “do you prefer public or private praise,” or “how did you think through that situation just now?” helps a ton. Get inside their minds a little. Question everything. Don’t save the questions for when things go wrong. Find out what makes them tick in their own unique way.

3. I observed them with others.

Not only did I spend time with them to get to know them, I observed how they communicated with others. I observed whom they spent the most time with and whom they seemed to communicate best with. If they communicated best with Joe, and I knew Joe really well, I made some assumptions that they probably have similar communication styles.

I had a loose formula I followed in determining how to best communicate with people.

Personality styles: 50%
Direct questions: 25%
Experience (Time): 25%

The good news I do believe you can get 75% of the way there in less than a month with a person (with personality styles and a handful of direct questions). The bad news (or good news for the people who take advantage of it) is that the 25% (time) is what separates the average leaders from the great leaders.

How have you learned to communicate with the people around you?

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  • It’s an on-going learning process. Time and experience is huge. If you’re not spending time with your team members, how do you expect to know how to communicate with them? I also would argue that it’s important for leaders to go to “communication” classes. We don’t know it all. We need on-going help to learn how to be a better communicator with a team of different members.

    • Definitely agree on the classes. If I learn how to improve communication overall, then by default it will improve with each individual.

      More training early on, before I needed it, is at the top of my list of “things I wish I had done before I was a leader.”

  • I’d love to know the communication specifics of the different DISC types. I’m super-high-D, so basically my communication style is short, direct barking at people, heh.
    Seriously though – one trick I’ve learned that has helped me immensely. Always communicate your motives when you’re talking, especially when you’re asking a question. It sounds silly, but it’s been so helpful. For instance, when asking a question to those I work with, I’ll add in something like, “The reason I ask is so that I’m getting ready to work on such and such project and your answer would affect when I do that.” It keeps people from being too guarded when you’re asking questions, it fosters trust, and it helps them know clearly what input you’re looking for.

    • Oooooh, good one Loren (the motives)

      I am working on a post about the word “because.”

      The gist references a study done years ago in which people at a copier said “Can I cut in line?” and something like 40% of people obliged.

      Then they said “Can I cut in line because I am in a real hurry.” Something like 85% obliged.

      Here’s the kicker…like 2% less (in my numbers, 83%) agreed if the person said “Can I cut in line because I need to make copies.” Well duh.

      BECAUSE is powerful.

      I have some advice on communicating to different profiles. I am DI and an odd combination of both.

      D- You know this one :)
      I – Stories and anecdotes. Don’t cut it short. Give ALL the details to a story. Ask about their personal life and let them tell you about theirs.
      S – Pause more between sentences to both give them time to listen and time to interject. They will not speak up or interrupt. Ask them if they have any questions, anything to add, etc. Encourage them…oh boy. Encourage the heck out of them. Affirm them but make sure it’s in private. Most S types are embarrassed by public praise.
      C – Same speech patters as an S. Slower and ask questions. Pause for them and occasionally make sure they aren’t comatose by asking if they have any questions or additions. Be very detailed and precise. My percentages above would DRIVE them NUTS. Don’t be discouraged if they are a bit of a pessimist either. They tend to be the Debbie Downer IMHO.

      Hope those help.

  • Most of the people I work with are high I’s – so as a high C – I have to go against everything I feel and leave out the details! They know that I’m all over the details, so I’ve learned to just say this is handled or I have questions. My office mate is a C also – so we get along great! And my friend who is a D – I know I need to keep it short and sweet – and to not get offended by his barking!

    I agree it takes a lot of time to get to know how people communicate and what we need to do to communicate better with them. Great post!

    • Oh High Cs, the anti-me

      I have mentioned before I am

      D – 18
      I – 17
      S – 1
      C – 0

      And I agree with that. Remember BLUF from last week? I could stand BLO (Bottom Line Only) haha.

      Ironically though, I write in a lot of detail sometimes when I think others need it. I actually communicate incredibly well with High Cs and S types.

      • My numbers are:
        D – 56
        I – 39
        S – 46
        C – 99

        Yep, 99! On behalf of all the C’s you work with – thank you for the details!

        • Dang.

          Yeah S types are the ones I have the most problems with. The pausing, speaking slower and encouraging them is not my natural style.

  • I STILL nees to take the DiSC profile. My wife took it at her job, and she is a Si ( which is what I would have expected).

    • Take it Josh! Now. Stop everything you are doing and take it.

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