Improving Communication Skills Without Losing Authenticity
People develop their own styles of communication. That’s part of what makes us each unique and interesting. Hemingway’s famously short, crisp sentences are the gold standard for a lot of writers. But where would we be without the Moira Roses of the world?
For those of you who aren’t Schitt’s Creek fans, Moira Rose is a character known for her eloquent vocabulary and offbeat delivery. This style of communication made her an icon in the world of recent television, but not everyone can get away with claiming they’re “positively bedeviled with meetings” or sweetly suggesting a “confabulation” instead of “a chat” with a coworker. Improving your communication skills doesn't just mean learning about conventions for effective speech.
While there are certain standard rules that make communication easier—a common language, correct grammar, a mastery of cultural colloquialisms—outside of these basic parameters, there is plenty of room for individual and authentic expression. But there’s a fine balance to be struck between finding our own unique style and adhering to certain norms of linguistic style and modes of delivery.
In a recent dialog with Sameer Srivastava, Associate Professor and Ewald T. Grether Chair in Business Administration and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, we talked about how people find their own optimal way of communicating within certain accepted parameters—and sometimes deviate from them with surprising success.
The dynamic of fitting in versus standing out
Within any culture, including a workplace, people consciously and subsciously learn and absorb norms around communication. For instance, there are norms of pronoun use in the English language (and they’re currently changing). There are norms around swearing—typically less acceptable in professional situations, except for intentional effect. There are even norms around criticism, which favor the use of positive language versus negative when in a professional setting.
Srivastava has researched the sociological theme of fitting in versus standing out within communication. In one paper he co-authored with several Stanford colleagues for the American Sociological Review, which analyzed over 10 million email messages exchanged among 601 employees in a high-tech firm, he found that there’s a tradeoff between cultural fit and network constraint. Those who operate as network bridges (their networks span otherwise disconnected groups) disproportionately benefit from fitting in culturally, whereas those with overlapping network ties benefit from being cultural misfits. People can navigate the tension by fitting in on one dimension—network position or culture—and standing out on the other.
This study was based on written communication in the form of email messages, but it’s just as important for people to strike a balance when engaged in live, verbal conversation, whether in person or online. Email is a fairly structured mode of communication, with variability constrained to word choice and grammar usage. But when communicating verbally, there are many other ways people can conform with or deviate from the norm. For instance, the rate at which they speak, the extent to which they listen and make space for others to speak, the volume and energy they exhibit while talking are all subject to norms of communication.
Self-expression on a baseline of cultural norms
Communication coaching typically aims to align your speech with psychologically validated norms. But if we’re all trying to get better at verbal communication in the same ways, how do we account for the uniqueness that discursive diversity demands? How do we express ourselves as individuals? Where’s our inner Moira Rose?
The point is not to eventually make everyone sound the same. It’s to provide a baseline of excellence from which communication can flourish in various forms. If you’re actively working on your communication skills, the goal should be to get to know your own optimal style—not to sound like everyone else. While you’re working on improving your speaking confidence, your grammar, and the ways you articulate yourself, you might also be developing your own unique vocabulary.
After all, it’s the ideas behind your words that matter. Rather than aiming to mimic a singular version of the perfect communicator, the goal is to intentionally hone your own particular conversational skills. It’s in this ability for speech to relay a person’s true humanity that there exists vast potential for individuality and differentiation. Coaches and tools merely help us refine technique. They can help us hone our expression, but our self-expression must come from within.
Related Reading: What a Pandemic Taught Us About How We Communicate — and How We Can Improve
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