Why it’s important to know your communication style at work

March 26, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Work Space is a biweekly Q&A column tackling the work challenges that keep you up at night. You can read all the columns here. If you want advice on something you’re navigating at work, send your questions to workspace@fortune.com.

The question has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: I’m organized, and I like to plan. When I want to share ideas with people I work with, I sometimes put together very thorough emails and documents that take a lot of work, but often, I get no response from my coworkers. 

Sometimes I get a one-word response, and I have to guess what part of my work they’re responding to or what they mean. The worst is when I get a short, maybe one-sentence reply that means I have to go back and redo a bunch of my work.

I work hard, and I feel like people don’t even care about how much time I am spending preparing everything. What am I doing wrong? Do they hate me?

Dear Alex, 

Your coworkers are probably not ignoring your emails or giving short responses because they hate you. More likely, they have a different approach to work and email than you do. You’re sending lots of information and expecting people to give you long and thoughtful responses. Sometimes, you send detailed plans without telling people the documents are coming. 

If you’re looking for a conversation about your ideas, detailed feedback, or collaborators who want to build something with you, starting with a massively detailed email isn’t the best way to get there. If you think more broadly about how you can convey your ideas, instead of focusing only on getting a response by email, that shift in perspective is going to open up new ways for you to work more effectively with your colleagues.

My No. 1 please-if-you-do-one-thing-from-this-advice-column-do-this-one-thing is for you to identify how your personality informs how you like to communicate. Be mindful about how you can be more open to other people’s communication preferences. It’s quite common for people to assume that others will naturally approach things the same way they do, but in reality, we can have very different ways of reaching our conclusions. People who like to bounce ideas off other people like to talk things out. People who like to work independently often prefer to sit with something for a while. 

Being able to identify some of your strongest personality traits is critical to better understanding how to communicate with others. I know loads of people who swear by their Myers-Briggs assessment, which has a big focus on whether you’re introverted or extroverted. The CliftonStrengths assessment is particularly useful for reframing conversations around what people are best at and for teams seeking the best ways to work together. 

Personally, I have found the Enneagram to be most helpful. The framework goes beyond static personality types to include nuanced insights on how people respond when they’re doing well versus when they’re more stressed. For example, as a Type Seven, I’m very extroverted. When I’m at my best, I can be a great hype person for a project—excited about possibilities, quick to make connections, and super responsive to other people. When I’m stressed, I have a harder time being present for other people’s ideas. I can get focused on brainstorming lots of new ideas in case one thing doesn’t work. I love talking things out with people, and if I’m stressed, I’m likely to skip over someone’s big idea email because I’m so focused on my own output. 

Whichever tool you choose—whether it’s Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, CliftonStrengths, or something else—it will give you a general framework for better understanding your personality, with specific insights that will be relevant to how you work with people. Pay special attention to whether you tend to process information verbally or through writing; whether you prefer to work through things on your own or in groups; and whether you prefer to collect data before making a decision or do things more intuitively. Having some insight into your style and how it impacts your work is helpful; being able to recognize other personality styles and how they might intersect with yours is the next level. 

While it can sometimes be a harsh dose of reality to see aspects of your personality boiled down in an archetype or quiz, I’ve found that having a better awareness of what my style is makes it easier to talk to people about how to work with me. None of the archetypes or styles are going to be 100% true to you. If you approach them with an open mind, you’ll almost certainly recognize something in yourself or someone you know, and that’s useful. I’ve also noticed that it’s easier for me to identify and correct patterns when I’m slipping into behaviors I’d like to change. 

The deeper challenge that you’re facing—thinking about how your communication style fits with other people’s—is one that’s more relevant than ever, now that more people are working remotely as a result of the coronavirus. It’s hard enough to guess what people’s approach is when you work in the same place. Now that you’re relying on email and other online communications more than ever, it’s a good time for you, and for all of us, to check in with people about how you can best get them information in a way that’s useful. 

You can use the confusion about what work even looks like while more people are working remotely as an opportunity to check in. You might find that you have more time for one-on-one conversations. Or you may find yourself suddenly on Zoom calls with groups of people. Here are some questions aimed at giving you insight into how people communicate that you can  ask your colleagues and collaborators: 

  • What’s the best way for someone to approach you with an ask? 
  • What’s the least useful way for people to approach you? 
  • When are the key times you like to check in on a project? 
  • How can I share updates with you in a way that’s helpful?
  • If I don’t hear back from you, how would you like for me to follow up?

Anytime you’re looking to reset the chemistry in a work relationship, questions like this can give you new insight. Beyond the data you’ll get, you’ll also show your colleagues that you care about how you can work with them in ways that don’t burden them or make extra work for them.  

I find checking in on communication and working styles is especially helpful when kicking off a new project, working with new people, or during check-ins about how you can work together (one-on-one meetings, annual reviews, debriefs about how a project went). You don’t have to ask all of these questions at once or reach out to everyone you work with simultaneously. Simply choose the questions that most apply to you and your situation.

To dig deeper, you can use this Guide to Working With Me worksheet, created by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, the authors of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Their guide touches on how you like to receive feedback and the most important things to know when communicating with you. 

Spend some time answering the questions for yourself before you go to your colleagues, so that you’re able to talk to people about what works for you. Having more language around your default way of working will help you give people a better idea of how to work with you. You might also notice that you’ve been expecting other people to do what you would naturally do.

Sending you good vibes, 

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