When you are a leader, one skill can make or break your success: communication.
But communicating as a leader is about more than clearly conveying goals, feedback or company vision. It’s about knowing how to relate to people and understand the different communication styles of your team members, managers and clients.
As an international leadership coach, I have observed that most communication styles fall into two types: low context communication and high context communication.
High context communicators realize there is so much more to conveying ideas than just the words they use. That means they notice a speaker’s body language, gestures and tone of voice, and also the context around the communication, like the relationship between the people, their status, and even where the conversation is happening (a message is delivered differently in a lively restaurant than in a quiet office). They know these things can affect the meaning of a message.
When high context communicators interact, they’re looking for the meaning behind the words.
These communicators value relationships. They’re less apt to say “no,” often preferring indirect language instead, because a “no” can be perceived as a personal rejection and can hurt a relationship. They avoid confrontation and strive to preserve harmony.
Low context communicators focus mostly on words. They tend to screen out non-verbal cues. It’s not how you say something — it’s what you say. They are direct with their language. They are comfortable with “no,” preferring the efficiency of a direct answer. Many low context communicators see no difference in communicating in person versus text or email.
Communication styles vary from person to person, but there tend to be similarities among cultures. People from western nations including the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia tend to favor low context communication, while people from Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to be high context communicators.
Great leaders understand the differences between these communication styles and how to adjust their messages to each audience. Here are some tips to help you do that.
Be aware of your own style. Are you comfortable with silences in conversation? You might be a high-context communicator. Do you see silence as “dead air” that needs to be filled? That’s the mark of a low-context communicator. Notice your own way of speaking. Do you get to the point and “say what you mean, mean what you say?” Or do you take a moment to consider your audience, phrasing your message with them in mind? Neither style is right or wrong, but you do need to be aware of your natural tendencies, and how they affect the impact of your messages.
Understanding how people process and deliver information can help avoid misunderstandings and the strain on relationships they cause. A good rule of thumb: Ask open-ended questions. They encourage the responder to provide more detail beyond a simple “yes” and “no.” This is especially crucial when working with Asians, for example. Generally, they tend to use “yes” like Americans use “uh-huh.” It might mean “I hear you,” but it could be misconstrued as “I agree.” Follow open-ended questions with definitive yes/no questions, to confirm you’re on the same page.
When the stresses of day-to-day business are in play, it’s easy to go on auto-pilot. But, make sure to stop, consider your audience and think before responding. This is especially important when working with high-context communicators, who may notice all the elements of your speech — like body language and tone of voice — and what they’re communicating. You could be “saying” things you’re not even aware of.
There are pros and cons to both styles of communication. The best leaders are able to strike a balance of both styles. Like high context communicators, they’re able to preserve relationships, yet be action-oriented and efficient like low context communicators.
Whether you are naturally a low context or a high context communicator, with practice, awareness and focus, you can be the best of both worlds.