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Cover image for Communication styles - Working effectively as a team

Communication styles - Working effectively as a team

barryosull profile image Barry O Sullivan ・5 min read

This idea for this article came from a twitter thread by @ErynnBrook.

The thread explained the concept of man-splaining (which was eye-opening as I am a chronic explainer), but it also delved into communication styles, which is where things got really interesting.

Styles of communication

In short, there are two styles of communication:

  1. Competition Style
  2. Connection Style

Competition style is about coming out on top. Every statement is viewed as a move in a game, the goal is to say something that "beats" whatever the other players are saying, leading to a constant back of forth until there is a "winner".

Connection style is about connecting to the other person. Every statement is viewed as an attempt to empathise and an opportunity to explore a topic with them, creating a shared understanding of the issue and deepening the social connection between parties.

What's fascinating is that neither style is inherently better than the other, competition is good in certain contexts whereas connection is better in others. Most of the time we're not even aware that we're using a certain style, it's just how we communicate. This can lead to tension, as two people communicating using different styles are not going to reach consensus.

With the above understanding under my belt, I realised I'd seen both styles used everywhere, in software development and every other aspect of business. Great teams used each style effectively, creating team consensus and better solutions, whereas poor teams used them incorrectly, creating tension and poor results. Let's go through some styles of collaboration and explore when each style works best.

Exploring solutions

Say your team needs to come up with a solution to a problem (be it implementing a new feature or fixing a broken one), what's a good way to do this?

  1. First off, you should start with a connective style, as you need everyone to be on the same page about the problem at hand. Your goal is to reach consensus, if you can't do that then there's no point in moving forward.

  2. Once you've agreed on what you're there to do, it's time to brainstorm, which means a switch to competitive style. The goal here is to compete with each other to come up with the "best" solution, creating as many as you can. Ego will play a roll here and that's fine. It's also ok to point out flaws in someone else's solution, but don't focus on that, the goal is to come up with solutions, not filter them.

  3. Now that you've brain stormed, it's time to reach consensus, that's where connective style comes into play again. Go through each of the ideas and make sure that each one of you has a shared understanding of the pros and cons of each. This isn't about being right, it's about a shared understanding.

  4. Now that everyone is on the same page, we can switch back to competitive and try to figure out which is best. At this point, ego should not be in play. Winning here isn't about choosing an idea you created, it's about figuring out which idea is best overall. This might involve choosing one solution, or combining solutions (which I find is often the case). It's a competition between solutions, not people.

  5. Once you've done this and you think you've reached the best solution, don't end the conversation, instead be sure to switch back to connective style and make sure everyone is on the same page and is in agreement. This ensures that there's no unresolved tension and everyone is agreed on next steps. At the end, everyone should be happy and even feel comfortable saying "Go team!".

Looking at the above, it's clear there's a pattern, which at it's simplest is the following.

Connective -> Competitive -> Connective -> Competitive -> Connective

It turns out this is a recurring pattern.

The feedback loop

At it's core it's all about the feedback loop. The above can be distilled down to the following, a constant loop where you switch between styles when appropriate, starting and ending at connective.

Styles of communication.

If you need to come up with lots of ideas, go competitive, when you need consensus, switch to connective. It really is that simple.

It's everywhere

What's funny is the same process works in so many other contexts.

Say you're trying to figure out the fix to a bug, it will follow the same process.

  • First you reach agreement on the bug (connective)
  • Then you compete on figuring out potential causes (competitive)
  • Then you reach agreement on which is most likely (connective)
  • Then compete on ways to prove it's actually the bug (competitive)
  • Then agree on who will do the work and how it will be verified (connective)

What about pair programming? Same thing, it's a constant switch between the two styles. If you need to explore solutions, compete to come up with ideas. When you need to reach consensus on the next step, connect.

Using the wrong style

A little word of warning, I mentioned above that I've seen styles misused. Let's quickly go into that.

Say you're trying to create ideas, if you're in a connective communication style, the team will settle on the first solution presented, even if it has glaring flaws that healthy competition would unearth.

The same is true with competing at the wrong time. If you're trying to reach consensus and instead of agreeing you're competing, then you'll get nowhere, you'll just end up frustrated and tired.

Finally you could have team members using different styles at the same time, so it always feels like you're never on the same page and that your discussions have no momentum, they're always stopping and starting jarringly.

A quick guide to spotting the above:

  • Are you always agreeing with each other but your solutions fall apart as soon as you implement them? Then you're not competing enough.
  • Is your team tense and you always feel like you're never getting your say, you're always doing what someone else says? Then you're not connecting enough.
  • Are you uncomfortable when communicating with certain members of the team? You might be connecting when they are competing, so you may need to switch styles (temporarily).

Conclusion

So that's that. When you're working with others, figure out what is the best style to apply for the given situation.
Are you exploring ideas? Then compete. Are you trying to reach consensus so you can move forward? Then connect.

In my mind, everyone is a leader, so if you notice that the team is stuck in an ineffective mode, attempt to switch them out of it.
(The twitter thread linked above has some great advice on how to switch from competitive to connective, have a read through so you're better prepared).

For myself, I'm going to pay more attention to how I communicate and I'm going to encourage those on my team to do the same. Ultimately, it's about working together to be effective.

Discussion

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nestedsoftware profile image
Nested Software

I personally prefer the idea of a "critical thinking" communication style over the idea of a "competitive" style, or a "connective" style for that matter. That is, if I come up with a solution, I try to find as many problems with it on my own as I can. If someone else brings up a potential issue, that's also great.

The same goes in the other direction. If I present a potential issue with someone else's solution, it's not because I am playing a game of one-upmanship. It's because I'm trying to make sure the end result is the best possible. In bringing up a potential flaw, it's important to also be open to the possibility the I'm wrong, and actually it's not a flaw after all.

It's true that there is a human tendency to perceive criticism as a personal attack as well as to treat ideas as a competition with winners and losers. I would say such tendencies probably tend to lower the effectiveness of a given team or organization though. In my opinion, we should try to alter these tendencies toward a position of respectful and constructive critical thinking.

If there are several competing ideas and no way to find a sensible consensus, then the best approach may be to let several people or teams develop a proof of concept independently. In that context, a competitive aspect may actually be pretty helpful. So it's not that I think it's never good, but I feel like if there is a lot of internal competitiveness, that may be a bit of a bad sign.

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barryosull profile image
Barry O Sullivan Author

Hey there, thanks for the reply.

I would say that one does not preclude the other, i.e. you can use either style of communication while applying critical thinking. I believe that critical thinking should always be "on" so to speak, it's a useful tool and helps us spot faulty reasoning, in both ourselves and others.

One thing I'd also clarify, pointing out flaws in an idea is not limited to the "competitive" style, it will definitely occur while in the "connective" style. The difference is that while "competing" you have the microphone and want to discuss what's on your mind (e.g. a potential solution to that problem), whereas when "connecting" you'll point out the flaw, then listen to what others have to say about it, gaining consensus.

I agree about our tendency to perceive criticism as an attack (infact, when I read your response that was my initial knee-jerk response, just being honest with myself) and I definitely agree that treating every idea as a competition is a zero sum game (there can only be one winner) and it's going to lead to a less effective team over all.

You definitely hit on an important distinction above, the difference between a "competitive" style and a "combative" style. When competing everyone knows the rules and tries to win by presenting the best argument. There are no hard feelings at the end, everyone is treated with respect and it feels more like a fun game. If you're combative however, you're actually attacking the other person's ideas (and potentially them), trying to win by bring the other idea/person down rather than bringing yourself up. This is when ideas are belittled and voices are raised. I consider this a degenerative form of the "competitive" style and I think it happens when team members are constantly competing and are never connecting.

Critical thinking will definitely help you spot when this is happening, as "combative" will tend to rely more on emotional arguments and logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks. Employing critical thinking and choosing the appropriate communication style can only benefit the team.

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nestedsoftware profile image
Nested Software

I agree about our tendency to perceive criticism as an attack (infact, when I read your response that was my initial knee-jerk response, just being honest with myself)

Hmmm, maybe my comment across as more aggressive or negative than I intended. :( Thanks for letting me know. I will try to work on that a bit more.

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barryosull profile image
Barry O Sullivan Author

I honestly wouldn't, your comment was in no way negative or aggressive, I just read it immediately after waking up after a bad nights sleep, so I think that's the culprit right there. I only mentioned it because it re-enforced your point and I'm a fan of self awareness.

You gave some solid feedback and I appreciate it!

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martinalui profile image
ocean bound

Thank you for the great article! It inspired me to write a follow up post in which I discuss in more detail on what can be done to facilitate a discussion. thealmarty.com/2018/06/13/implemen...

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barryosull profile image
Barry O Sullivan Author

A pleasure. I enjoyed your followup to it as well, some solid advice on how to implement it. Great job.

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martinalui profile image
ocean bound

Thank you so much!

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tmcsquared profile image
TMcSquared

Thank you so much for writing this! I find myself tending towards a competitive style more than I should, but you explained why doing so can lead to undesired consequences.

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andy profile image
Andy Zhao (he/him)

Awesome post, definitely sharing with non-technical people I know, too. Thanks for sharing the tweet too!

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hkly profile image
hkly

This is a super great, non-judgemental writeup! Every team should read this!

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barryosull profile image
Barry O Sullivan Author

Thank you very much!

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onekiloparsec profile image
Cédric Foellmi

Pretty nice, thanks.