Robin has a small landscape design firm with three employees. Barry, the oldest of the three has ten years experience, is very talented, and wants to buy the business from Robin, who is getting close to retirement. The other two employees are younger and in the novice phase of their careers.
Robin respects Barry, seeing him as hard working, sincere, and ambitious without being driven. Although Robin also genuinely likes Barry, he’s never been able to establish the kind of rapport he’d like. He wishes the two of them could have very open, heart to heart type discussions, but his attempts at getting closer leave him feeling awkward and out of synch.
Through the communication styles lens, Robin is an external, spontaneous processor (thinking out loud). He is genuinely friendly and enjoys talking with others. He uses his hands a lot for self-expression and often refers to images and feelings in a poetic style.
Contrasting that, Barry is more of an internal processor, needing to think through his feelings and ideas (intrapersonal) to formulate thoughts and positions before meaningful engagement with others. He makes lists throughout the day, quantifies times and tasks naturally, and has a very reasoned (logical) approach to his life and communication.
Observing their processing/communication patterns, it became apparent that Robin was trying to engage spontaneously with Barry, popping into his office and quickly running something by him for an opinion or just to share information or find out how Barry was doing. Barry’s reserved responses frustrated Robin, and at times he felt rebuffed and hurt.
Robin tried to confront this pattern head on by asking Barry if something was wrong between them. Barry seemed confused and rattled by Robin’s question, which caused more awkwardness . . . and of course, Robin then began drawing varied conclusions: Barry is having problems at home with his “controlling” wife, Barry doesn’t trust or respect Robin, Barry is withdrawn and depressed, etc.
It’s hard not to draw psychological conclusions based on the above observations, yet there is another way of approaching the communication patterns Robin observed. My first suggestion was based on the assumption that Barry is stronger intrapersonally and Robin stronger interpersonally. Therefore if Robin pops into Barry’s office, he should request a mutually satisfactory time for them to talk and let Barry know what the agenda is, so Barry can have an opportunity to think about it ahead of time. My second suggestion was for Robin to organize his visual-spatial pictures in a logical format (list, task flow, etc.) so Barry, with his logical approach, could quickly understand them.
These two adjustments had immediate positive results. Although Robin likes the idea of being spontaneous and free wheeling in his conversation, it doesn’t work for Barry. Giving Barry time to prepare and creating some order around the discussion allows both of them to be more open and communicative. The structure frees them to connect better emotionally and have some spontaneous conversation, as well.
Thinking about and accounting for style differences first, offers a straightforward opportunity for problem-solving before delving into the potential psychological and emotional roadblocks. The sequence matters.