Four Communication Types

During my career in the Silicon Valley, I’ve mentored and coached dozens of people, without ever having a formal training on it. Last year, I attended the Berkeley High Impact Leadership course and I finally learned a good theoretical background behind these processes. In this article, I will be sharing the secret recipe with you!

After reading, you should know more about how to express empathy in your relationships, as well as the basics of playing the four basic role archetypes.

Empathy

First of all, I’d like to emphasize the importance of empathy in your work relationships. What is empathy? The best explanation I’ve heard over the years is that it basically means to be able to walk in other person’s shoes. To imagine you were them. How would you feel?

For those that like an instruction manual to everything, like myself, here’s a quick trick. There are two types of empathy according to the cognitive psychologist Dr David Burns: thought and feeling empathy.

Thought empathy is simply the act of summarizing what you’ve heard from the other person.

Feeling empathy is simply the act of noticing how the other person is probably feeling and letting them know you are aware of their emotions.

So let’s take an example. Say your coworker Bob comes to you with a following problem:

Bob: That meeting went horribly. We’re two months behind on our schedule and our director demands we meet the deadline, which is only four months ahead of us! I don’t know what to do!

You: Sounds like you are behind on your project (thought empathy). You must be under a lot of stress (feeling empathy).

Bob: etc.

This conversation pattern can occur for as long as Bob needs to talk with you. Pay attention to Bob’s words and body language, they will make empathizing with him that much simpler.

Support Role

What we’ve seen above is also called the support role. When you choose to play a support role in your work relationship, your job is to simply empathize with your coworker and simply make them feel heard. Is this useful? Oftentimes, this is exactly what people need, especially when under a lot of stress. Giving premature advice or asking too many questions might do more harm than good.

The main quality of the support role is that it’s full of empathy, but not much on telling the other person what to do, nor asking a lot about it. Let’s put those two on a graph:

Fig. 1) Support has “low tell” and “low ask”.

Who to support: Ask yourself – do I know this person well enough? If the answer is no, probably the best course of action is the support role.

Coaching Role

So what do we call it when you start asking questions, inquiring? For example:

Bob: That meeting went horribly. We’re two months behind on our schedule and our director demands we meet the deadline, which is only four months ahead of us! I don’t know what to do!

You: Sounds like you are behind on your project (thought empathy). You must be under a lot of stress (feeling empathy). What do you plan to do about it (inquiry)?

Bob: etc.

That’s coaching in a nutshell. The main pattern is:

  1. Listen: pay attention to what the other person is saying and what does their body language reveal.
  2. Empathize: show that you’ve heard the other person by empathizing with them using thought and/or feeling empathy.
  3. Ask: using open-ended questions, help the other person think about the problem they are having and help them reach the solution on their own!
  4. Go to step 1.

Most importantly, when coaching, do not ask suggestive questions. Then you aren’t a coach. Ask open-ended questions. Questions that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no” and such. Instead of asking “are you going to do X about it”, ask “what are you doing to do about it”. Let the other person think about the solution, your job as a coach is to guide them in their thinking. Keep them on track.

Not having to give any advice, coaching is very useful when you feel that the other person is far more capable of solving the problem for themselves than you are.

Fig. 2) Coach has “low tell” and “high ask”.

Whom to coach: Ask yourself, do I believe this person can resolve the problem at their own? If yes, assume the coach role.

Advisory Role

Let’s take an opposite example. What happens when you know more about the problem your colleague or friend is having and you want to “jump right into it” and help them succeed? In this case, you are playing the role of an adviser. You aren’t asking many questions, but you do tell a lot. Make sure you are invited and welcome to play this role, before you do. Playing an adviser is a dangerous one!

Fig. 3) Adviser has “high tell” and “low ask”.

Whom to advise: This one is best to do when you are directly asked for an advice, such as when being a consultant. Otherwise, ask yourself, did this person ask for my advice?

Mentor Role

Finally, being the mentor is my favorite relationship type. In this role, you are going to ask questions and give advice, you will empathize, support, coach and advise, all at the same time.

Fig. 4) Mentor has “high tell” and “high ask”.

Whom to mentor: Does this person need both coaching and advising? See above. Make sure the person wants to be mentored.

The other side of the archetypes

Finally, when playing all of these roles, you have to pay attention to how your participation is received on the other end. Just knowing these “recipes” won’t make you the best coach or mentor in the world, right? Trying to be a supportive person can render you seem absent or useless. Being too much of a mentor can make you seem like a micro-manager, and so on. So here’s an example of what could happen if things go wrong:

Fig. 5) The negative sides of the four communication roles: Micro-Manager, Dictator, Absent and Nuisance.

Summary

Alright, hope you had a fun time reading the article. Remember – listen, repeat, then ask for more or give advice if you have a good one. Remember to use open-ended questions. Choose the right role for the situation. Be mindful – focus on the other person, forget about yourself.

Thanks for reading thus far and see you next week.

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