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Learning & Development Blog

How Communication Styles Affect Your Training

Leslie Ciborowski
President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

It was the first day of a five-day training course. Andy had just completed an overview of what the participants could expect from the week and had given them their first assignment. Just as he was about to dismiss them into their newly formed teams, his co-facilitator Steve popped out of his chair, rushed to stand next to Andy and began addressing the group. Not only did Steve clarify Andy’s instructions but he reviewed them in detail. Five minutes later the participants left the room.

Andy was seething. Steve was confused. Steve thought he had saved the day because he believed Andy’s directions were confusing and his goal was to make sure the participants had “crystal clear” directions.

In a rather heated debrief Andy explained he was deliberately making the directions vague to see how the teams would react to not having all the information they needed. The concept of being deliberately vague was completely out of Steve’s comfort zone. He was a guy who was always precise, focused and prepared with handouts and step-by- step directions.

Andy, on the other hand, took a more relaxed, informal approach to training. He thought the participants would find it entertaining to see how each team worked with the incomplete details.

Two trainers. Two very different communication styles—styles that impact almost every aspect of their approach to training. When left to our own devices, most trainers think of activities and approaches to learning that appeal to their own style.

It’s only when a trainer understands all the styles and their different learning preferences that they can provide a “balanced” training experience- one that has something for everyone.

The concept of communication styles goes back to Hippocrates, who in 400 BC identified four basic types of temperaments. While there were definitely some flaws in his analysis (he linked the differences to various types of liquids in the body), the overarching concept holds true today. When you think of the various behavior assessments on the market- DiSC, True Colors and even Myers Briggs – they are all based on four different styles—just like Hippocrates identified.

When any of these assessments provides you with your “style” it is with the caveat that this is your most comfortable way of showing up. It does not mean that you can’t exhibit the traits of the other styles. In fact, one of the reasons to know your “base” style is so you can adjust your behavior on a situation by situation basis.

If our co-facilitators Steve and Andy had talked about the opening instructions ahead of time, Steve probably would have advocated for a different plan. While Andy may have still fought to have an exercise with deliberate ambiguities, he might have adapted some of the instructions to better meet the needs of people with communication styles that need more details.

What both Steve and Andy were doing was playing to their own styles – something that you see trainers do all the time because it’s the most comfortable and easiest approach to take. As trainers, our inclination is to create a learning experience that we would like.

What about the folks in the room? How did they respond to Andy’s and Steve’s different approaches? There’s a good chance that a portion of the participants started tuning Steve out as he meticulously reviewed the instructions for the activity, while others breathed a sigh of relief and felt that he had come to their rescue. They were not comfortable with Andy’s ambiguous directions, and Steve provided comfort.

That’s the conundrum: what one style may find helpful, another finds annoying.

Is it possible to please all the people all the time? Of course not. But when you realize that some people will learn best when you tell stories, and others prefer charts and graphs, you make sure you include both. When you know that some participants need time to process, information and others need lots of review, you build in time to make that possible.

The key is to have a balance of approaches so you can effectively communicate in ways that create the best learning environment for the various styles. To do this effectively, you have to understand the styles, understand how each style prefers to communicate and understand the ways they prefer to learn.

If the participants take an assessment as part of the training, you can chart their styles and see if there is a particular style dominating the group. If you discover the group prefers to be entertained while learning rather than interpreting lots of charts and graphs, you can change up your presentation to include more of a “fun” factor.

But what about the times when you don’t have an official document that discloses their styles? Fortunately, when you are familiar with various behavior styles, you can rapidly guesstimate how the room stacks up.

Imagine four people with different behavior styles waiting for an elevator. The first person presses the button. After three seconds, she presses it again. When the door doesn’t open immediately, she heads towards the stairs. When the elevator doors open 30 seconds later, the three people remaining are greeted with a full elevator. One person gets on and immediately looks at the weight restrictions for the elevator – after doing a quick calculation he decides to stay. The second person dramatically enters the elevator- does a full 360 and starts joking about being a sardine. The remaining person looks at her colleagues and says, “I’ll wait for the next one.”

Those very different reactions to the same situation tell us a lot about each person’s behavioral style and their learning preferences. You don’t need a full elevator to figure this out. You just need to become a student of communication styles so you can quickly assess behavior.

This means we have to be flexible enough in our training approach to make some on- the- spot course corrections to create the most conducive learning environment for our participants. It also means we have to take time before the workshop to analyze how various styles will react to the activities and discussions planned for the training.

We have to know how various styles will react to our approach.

Try this: go through your planned training and document each module; indicating which styles will have the most positive reaction to your approach. Add up the number you have for each style. It’s usually an eye-opening experience. Chances are your style will come out the winner! While most trainers create activities to appeal to other styles, what most discover is that the majority of the training appeals to their personal style.

If you see that you tend to skew to a particular style (often our own) make adjustments so that all styles can experience a maximum learning event.

Want to learn more about communication styles? Check out our workshops: Train-the-Trainer, Communicating Effectively, People Skills & Professionalism, Teamwork and Commitment and  Understanding Yourself – The Key To Success