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OCI #22: Four Styles of Talking
Part 1 of a series on effective communication.
The word “communication” gets thrown around a lot in the world of organizational change. We spend a lot of time thinking about messages, target audiences, one- vs two-way communication, and communication channels and plans, and on activities designed to share information with people during change. These, of course, are important.
You probably know by now, however, that I like to dig into the roots of things, and the deeper meanings of the words we use every day. When I look up the origins of communication, I find the notion of sharing, making common, joining, and even the concept of communion, which is a sacramental way of coming together. This got me thinking about where and how this level of connection might happen during change, and the power we might create together if we deeply hear one another and integrate our inner and outer worlds.
With that in mind, I’d like to unpack a set of perspectives and tools that get at deeper ways of understanding one another. These come from a model called Core Communicationthat I learned from its author, Dr. Sherod Miller, many years ago. In this post I’ll summarize the first piece, which focuses on four different types of “talk” we use—the approaches we take when sending information.
Everyday Talk: Small Talk and Shop Talk
Closed Talk: Control, Fight, and Spite Talk
As you explore these, give some thought to the ones you use most frequently, and see if you can find examples of each.
Style 1: Everyday Talk
This is the type of talk we use most often to exchange routine information. We use it to make contact, keep in touch, and maintain friendly and sociable relationships. There are two general categories:
We use small talk to move in and out of conversations with colleagues, friends, family, and others. Topics revolve around news, the weather, sports, and other topics of general interest. Greetings, chit-chat, joking, recalling shared memories, discussing daily routines and habits…these are all small talk.
This type of talk helps the world go around, builds rapport and liking, and creates the starting point for deeper conversations.
Shop talk is the task-oriented exchange of information we use to get things done. We use this when we update others, provide facts, schedule appointments, follow up on activities, and communicate routine decisions. It is typically polite and businesslike.
This type of talk helps us maintain routine, coordinate work, and keep people informed.
How much of your communication falls into this style? What are your favorite topics for small talk? Who do you know that is particularly good at using small talk to lighten pressure or tension? What are your most effective channels for shop talk? Do you ever intentionally use this style to avoid dealing with emotions or deeper issues?
Style 2: Closed Talk
This is the type of talk we use to establish agreement and compliance. It is used when we seek to take charge, influence or control others, use our position to enforce compliance, maintain the status quo, or take other actions to affect what others are doing. It can also include talk designed to intimidate, force, or coerce others. There are three general categories:
We use this to direct, control, and lead others. Directing, controlling, leading, evaluating, setting expectations, reinforcing behavior, and instructing are all examples of control talk. Some examples include:
Declaring a goal or outcome: “We will achieve this goal in three months.”
Advocating: “Give it a try. You’ll really enjoy it.”
Directing: “Check that spreadsheet and let me know if you find any issues.”
Evaluating: “That project came out really well. Great job!”
This type of talk is useful when we seek to be in charge, to be helpful, and to persuade or compel others. When it works well, it is efficient and causes others to agree and act. It can also foster resistance if it is perceived as authoritarian, abrasive, dismissive, or controlling.
We use this to force change by intimidating and dominating others and/or defending ourself. When we attack, blame, bully, and seek to win, be right, or hide vulnerability we are using fight talk. It tends to focus on people rather than issues, and is often accompanied by nonverbal cues of aggression and hostility. Some examples include:
Blaming or accusing: “It’s your fault. You weren’t paying attention.
Arguing: “You’re wrong. It doesn’t work that way.
Stereotyping, labeling, name-calling: “Hey, dummy, how many times do I have to explain this to you?”
Lecturing, preaching: “You should know better than that.”
This type of talk often arises around unclear or disrupted expectations, a shortage of resources, or emotions such as fear or overwhelm. While it can occasionally kick-start action, its negative impacts can be significant—breeding frustration and resentment, leaving others feeling threatened and defensive, damaging relationships, and blocking long-term positive solutions to challenging issues.
We use this style when we employ a passive-aggressive, “one-down” way of speaking. When we twist or distort things, get defensive, withhold information, undermine change, try to sound smart, and get even with others we are engaging in spite talk. It can be sarcastic, pessimistic, resigned, and cynical. Some examples include:
Taking pot-shots: “If you’re so smart, you do it.”
Whining: “How come I always have to do the dirty work?”
Gossiping, back-stabbing: “She really made a mess of it this time.”
Guilt trips: “If you were really concerned about the project, you would have finished this sooner.”
Self-deprecation: “If I weren’t such an idiot, I would have caught that mistake.”
This type of talk can arise when people think they have no other way to influence others. It can represent a temporary response when someone is feeling wounded, or a longer-term disposition of low self-esteem or victimization. It drains energy and breeds distrust.
What proportion of your communications are control talk? Where is this most helpful? Do you see yourself or others engaging in fight or spite talk? What underlying issues might be leading people to use these forms of communication?
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Style 3: Search Talk
This is an open style that supports the exploration of complex issues, uncertainty, and differing perspectives. When we are brainstorming options, speculating, evaluating alternatives, searching for root causes, and providing insights, we are using search talk. It tends to be calm, inquisitive, and reflective. Some examples include:
Identifying issues: “I’m wondering if this technology is outdated.”
Giving relevant background information: “Last year our employee engagement survey results showed…”
Brainstorming, suggesting options: “Perhaps we could talk to several vendors and see if any of them have dealt with this before.”
Proposing solutions: “What if we tested this process for a month and then made a decision?”
This type of talk is expansive, and great for creating a sense of safety and moving past arguments that can arise with fight or spite talk. It often focuses more on the past and future than on the present, and allows the creation of options and possibilities. By itself, it can lack a sense of closure and commitment to future action, and can be used to defer action and avoid responsibility.
Where, and with whom, do you find yourself engaging in search talk? How have you used it to generate and explore options? Have you intentionally applied it to get beyond conflicts and arguments? How do you recognize when it’s time to shift away from this style and toward a more action-oriented conversation?
Style 4: Straight Talk
This style is direct and clear, and goes to the heart of an issue. It focuses on speaking for oneself while also engaging others in the conversation. It involves disclosing information such as feelings, wants, and commitments, which are often left unspoken in other styles. When we acknowledge the reality of the present, seek to be attentive, engaged, and responsive, and work toward shared action, we are using straight talk. Some examples include:
Identifying issues: “The drop in sales really scares me. I think this business line is in trouble.”
Initiating change: “I’d like to suggest that we focus on developing these two new products and drop the declining one.”
Committing to action: “I will support your report and circulate it to my team.”
Acknowledging differences: “Sounds like we’re at opposite positions on this point.”
Requesting change: “I notice you sometimes pull back when disagreements come up during meetings. I’d like to see you stay more involved.”
Expressing appreciation: “Thank you. Your support gives me confidence to move ahead.”
Straight talk is assertive without being aggressive or defensive. It allows everyone to express their thoughts, feelings, and wants as input to rich interchange and better solutions. It builds trust and is action-oriented.
It is also a lot of work. It requires persistence and takes time. It can also reveal real differences in values and perspectives that require significant work to address. However, when it is used effectively, it can take the energy and emotion of spite talk and fight talk and translate it into useful information. It has the potential to be transformational.
Where have you noticed yourself and others engaging in straight talk? What conditions are most conducive to moving into this mode? Who do you know that is particularly good at speaking for themselves while also giving others space and inviting them to participate?
The styles you use influence the appropriateness and effectiveness of your communications, and therefore the results you accomplish. Here are some key points to keep in mind:
No one style handles all situations. With the exception of fight and spite talk, all styles are functional in when used in the appropriate situations.
Fight and spite talk are useful for signaling issues.
Search talk and straight talk enable you to go beneath the surface and get to deeper issues.
If you try to “use” straight talk to be powerful, your hidden agenda to control rather than connect moves you into Style 2. Similarly, if you use straight talk to confront (“let me be honest with you”), it becomes fight talk.
It’s important to be alert for mixed messages, which hide fight or spite talk under another style. For example, “I appreciate the thorough job on this report [straight talk], but it sure took you forever [fight or spite talk].” And it’s also important to recognize situations where leaders say they want straight talk, but then respond negatively to it.
As a general rule, you get the style you give. As style deepens, relationships grow.
Being able to recognize and apply these styles effectively involves noticing which ones are being used, selecting the styles that will be most helpful in a given situation, and increasing the amount of straight talk while decreasing fight and spite talk.
A few ideas to try:
Think of the talking styles you use during a typical day. Estimate the percentage you spend in each. Then identify a desired percent for each. Choose one talking style you think would increase your effectiveness, and one to decrease. Decide where and when to implement these changes.
Estimate the percentage of each style your team uses when you are together, and give a percent for desired usage. Then discuss with your team, and agree on styles to increase and decrease. Decide how you will implement these changes.
Here is a diagram you can use as a starting point.
In future posts I will share additional parts of this model that include listening, mapping issues, and more!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in two weeks!
The headline titles of the first two categories are my own. The sub-categories are drawn from the original model.
Miller also suggests that these styles align with the forming/storming/norming/performing model of team development.