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Communication Styles and Manager Choices

(Copyright material (c) Clive Johnson and Jackie Keddy 2010. Excerpted from “Managing Conflict at Work: Understanding and Resolving Conflict for Productive Working Relationships”, published by Kogan Page $39.95. Reproduced here with permission.)

Managers, as much as anyone else, can choose from a variety of ways for communicating with another individual. When imparting information, a choice may be made between being directive, stating a clear view or instruction; or participative, inviting suggestions and comment from the other person. A direc- tive or ‘tell’ instruction doesn’t need to be made curtly, as though issuing an order. For example, the command, ‘You’ll finish your report by Monday’ might better be framed as: ‘I need your report by Monday so that I’ll be able to finish the briefing note for Tuesday’s board meeting.’

Making a demand without an explanation can be interpreted as an unreason- able order, lacking two-way respect. Compare the impacts of the statements: ‘I feel disappointed because you said you would finish it and you didn’t’, with ‘When you said you’d finish it and didn’t, I felt disappointed because I want to be able to count on you’, or ’Have I given you everything you need to know?’, and ‘Is there anything else you might need from me?’

Similarly, managers can choose whether or not to be participative in listening to what others have to say. They may keep an open mind, genuinely consider the points raised by others, and be ready to challenge and change their own thinking. Alternatively, they may remain resolute in their views and, consciously or other- wise, filter out anything that contradicts this or which they don’t want to hear: listening to instruct rather than listening to engage.

Introducing these two basic functions in communication – saying, writing or otherwise imparting something you want another person to hear or read, and being on the receiving end of someone else’s message – highlights a potential for failed communication. A simple illustration, which you may have come across before, shows the potential breakpoints between ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’.

The choice of words as well as when, how (voice intonation, situation, etc) and by what means (verbally, by e-mail, in a team meeting, etc) a message is communicated is therefore something to get right. So too is the way in which we listen.

Unfortunately expediency, or defaulting to a preferred communication style, is normally the master when communicating in the moment, although applied practice can break this natural instinct. What’s more, many managers are hesitant about using communication styles they aren’t familiar with, especially if they perceive that these may undermine their position of power within a team. It can take courage to move from a situation in which barking out orders is the normal, preferred way of interacting with junior staff, or to admit to not knowing all the answers in a team, yet such change can often reap rewards.

Where managing conflict is concerned, effective communication is all the more important. Taking a passive assertive position (for example instructing someone who is obviously consumed with anger to ‘calm down’ or ‘not make such an issue of something that isn’t really that important’) may at best silence a disgruntled employee for a while, but will most likely cause the issue concerning them to become more firmly internalized.

Similarly, offering a listening ear but not following up with any feedback or action is unlikely to reassure an unhappy team member. Failing to take follow-up action may often lead to the issue being turned back on a manager, leaving him or her and the organization vulnerable to a criticism of not acting when the issue was first raised.


Clive Johnson

Clive Johnson  had a lengthy career in management consultancy, Clive now practices as a coach, consultant, and trainer. With Jackie Keddy, he is co-founder of the International Conflict Management Forum ( and The Janus Partnership (, a consultancy and training organization exclusively dedicated to workplace conflict management. He regularly speaks and… MORE >


Jackie Keddy

Jackie Keddy is a highly experienced conflict resolution practitioner. Jackie practices through her own company, Keddy Consultants, Jackie Keddy is recognised as a prominent practitioner in coaching implementation. An accomplished training facilitator, mediator and advisor, she frequently speaks at conferences and other platforms, writes and is cited in the… MORE >

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