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What is your primary communication style?

As humans and leaders, we tend to fall into a primary mode or style of communication. While our communication style will naturally vary depending on the person with whom we are speaking and the setting of the conversation, we all have a “conversation center” – the style we default to most often.

There are varying philosophies for categorizing the number and type of primary communication styles, but I like to draw upon the three conversation styles outlined in the Motivational Interviewing (MI) literature: Directing, Following, and Guiding. MI has its roots in substance abuse treatment, but the approach to conversation is applicable in everyday communication, and has been adopted widely.

“MI is a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication ...designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal.”*

While all three conversation styles are outlined within the MI literature, the true reflection of MI is found in the "guiding style" of communicating. In my coaching and consulting work, I recommend that leaders work toward having the MI approach, or “guiding style” as their conversation center.

As a leader, you will likely find yourself vacillating between these conversation styles; and there is certainly a time and place for all three approaches. Understandably, there will be times when you need to simply make a decision and provide direction to someone on your team. Particularly if you are in a high-risk, high-stakes industry (e.g. first responders, medical personnel, military), there will be times when extensive observation and dialogue wouldn’t be appropriate. Conversely, there will be times when observing your team members or others around you and simply listening would be beneficial. Rather than jumping to conclusions or making split-second decisions, you would benefit from slowing down, listening, and gathering more information prior to decision-making.

If either of these approaches is your default mode of communicating, however, you could be missing the mark. If you default to giving orders and commands, and rarely observe what’s going on around you or fail to solicit input from your team, you increase the likelihood that your judgement will be misguided and that mistakes will be made. If your regular habit is to just follow along with the team, listen, and rarely assert a decision, your team is missing out on valuable insight from you and the lack of direction can spell disaster for strategy and goal achievement.

Using the guiding communication style as your primary conversational approach, with the occasional use of directing and/or following, will provide you with an optimal balance for leading your team. With the guiding approach, your team will be inspired to offer creative solutions, they will feel part of the decision-making process, and they will feel supported to do their best work. You still serve as the leader, and you guide your team to the best outcome, but it is a collaborative process. Your team knows they can rely upon you for direction and decisions when they need to be made, and they feel seen and heard, but they also feel like a partner in the process.

*Miller and Rollnick (2013) Motivational Interviewing: Helping People to Change (3rd edition). p. 29.


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