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Focus On Communication Styles to Reduce Misunderstanding


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Clear communication consistently ranks as a priority for any organization to be successful. We expect clear, concise communications with our fellow workers.

Instead, we should expect misunderstanding. It happens all the time.

Consider the following example.

Jim updated the other officers about plans to present an award to the company owner. “Sue, Jerry and I will meet with Mr. Bigwig at company headquarters Monday morning and give him the award then. " Vivian and Peter looked at each other in amazement. “Why are just you three going? We've all worked for a year to get this project off the ground. Peter and I deserve to be there, too. " Jim replied, “It doesn't take five of us to give the award. Sue, Jerry and I each have to be there for other reasons. There's no need for you and Peter to show up. " Dumbstruck, Vivian said, “Well, we'll be there anyway. You just don't get it, do you?"

Vivian was right. Jim didn't get it, but neither did she. They were each speaking their own separate language. Jim used logic to rationalize that five people were too many. He, Sue and Jerry had other reasons for being at company headquarters. They could do the task.

Vivian, though, wasn't concerned about the logic. She felt all five should be included since they had worked together on the project. She wanted to be sure all contributors were recognized.

This clash in languages created conflict. Conflict in today's world is inevitable, given that each individual has his or her own values, experiences, insights, perceptions, and feelings. Otto Kroeger writes in Type Talk at Work:

There are no good or bad approaches to resolving conflicts; there are only differences. That understanding alone can be liberating and can unlock previously closed doors to resolving problems.

With Jim and Vivian, the conflict led to misunderstanding and some hurt feelings. Such misunderstandings can have more serious consequences. Consider these effects of misunderstanding, from Why Didn't You Say That in the First Place? by Richard Heyman.

  • Misunderstanding wastes time and money by causing rework-and maybe rework again.

  • Misunderstanding consumes valuable time, which can make projects go over budget.

  • Employees who don't understand their job responsibilities waste their time and the company's time.

  • Attendees who don't understand a meeting's purpose cost time and money.

  • Written documents, such as policy statements or even e-mails, that are misunderstood cost time and money to fix.

    "Knowing what causes most misunderstanding and how to prevent it will give us new power to do the best job we can for ourselves and for our organizations, " Heyman writes.

    Gaining insight with The Communication Wheel

    We can greatly reduce misunderstanding by learning how individuals communicate. How does a person process information? Does experience affect how a comment is interpreted? What mental framework do individuals have? What communication needs do they have?

    One tool that gives us insight into misunderstanding and communication problems is The Communication Wheel. Ô It was developed by Dr. Henry L. Thompson. Dr. Thompson's research into people's communication styles shows that different personalities have different languages, different ways of communicating with others.

    Visible differences

    The beauty of The Communication Wheel lies in its simplicity. At the introductory level, the Language WheelÔ depicts the four different languages that individuals speak: Sensing, iNtuiting, Thinking and Feeling.

    The Sensing (12 o'clock) and iNtuiting (6 o'clock) languages are directly opposite. The Sensing person can drive an iNtuiting person out of the room by bombarding him with details. The iNtuiting person can shut down a Sensing person by overloading her with possibilities, thinking out loud, and never getting to the point.

    The Thinking (9 o'clock) and Feeling (3 o'clock) languages also are opposites. The Thinking person's need for process and structure can leave the Feeling person feeling hurt. The Feeling person wants that pat on the back, that “Good job!" praise that the Thinking person rarely considers.

    Individuals usually prefer two of the four, either Sensing or iNtuiting and either Thinking or Feeling. I, for instance, prefer iNtuiting and Feeling. For most people, one of their two preferences is the style they use most often. I am a raging iNtuitor; I only talk about details when someone requests them. I drive Sensors nuts; they drive me nuts.

    The following is information on the four different languages:


    Presents information step by step, attends to what is said or done, and wants concrete examples. A sensor is focused on present or past, wants practical information, gets right to the point, and may come across as “abrupt. " They might seem impatient, speak in short and simple sentences, trust only their own experiences, and only take in information through their senses.


    Focuses on the big pictures, talks of concepts and ideas, and may ramble when speaking. iNtuitives may come across as aloof and can absorb information quickly. These people like variety and creativity, and can be easily distracted. iNtuitives also dislike detail, enjoy brainstorming, and use long sentence structures.


    Presents information logically, uses analytical logic, and may be seen as being critical. Thinkers enjoy debating and challenging issues and cover their points thoroughly, clarify by questioning, and tend to be blunt. They also like a formal approach, desire organization, have agendas, and need to be careful with use of e-mail.


    Comments are taken personally. Feelers enjoy conversing with people and trusts and accepts others. Feelers respond to human values, are warm and friendly, overreact to feelings, don't get directly to the point, and have a problem saying no. They also like to avoid conflict, use lots of adjectives, want harmony, and voice their appreciation.

    How can this help?

    Let's go back to the conversation between Jim and Vivian. Jim is a thinker on the wheel; Vivian is a feeler. Jim values logic and analysis. He tends to be blunt and impersonal in conversation. Vivian, on the other hand, values personal relationships and being needed. She is sensitive and takes comments personally.

    What might have happened if Jim and Vivian had known about principles presented in The Communication Wheel? Jim might have realized that Vivian would expect her and Peter to be included in the ceremony as recognition of their contributions. Vivian might have realized that Jim needed a more logical answer as to why all the officers should go. Knowledge of the other's communication style could have helped reduce misunderstanding.

    I use The Communication Wheel to help people in a work setting understand their own communication style and that of others. For example, Sue, the boss, is an iNtuitor who gives very broad direction such as “take care of this. " Ralph, a Sensor and the one responsible for “taking care of this, " needs specific directions from Sue, such as “do such and such, get feedback from all seven team members and the director, and get back to me by 9 a. m. tomorrow. " Sue assumes Ralph understands what she wants done; Ralph gets very frustrated because he can't read her mind. Once Sue and Ralph understand their own styles and needs, they are each empowered to ask for clarification and work toward understanding.

    Pam Scott is CEO of Armstrong Scott Inc. , the expert in communication and leadership for the engineering world. Her passion lies in helping individuals with interpersonal communications and helping companies with strategic communications. As she learned, “Numbers may drive the business, but people drive the numbers. " If this article intrigued you, go to to find more great content.

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