Strategy : Leveraging The Power in Diverse Communication Styles

Dianne Hofner Saphiere (M.S) is founder and Principal of Nipporica Associates LLC, an intercultural consulting anf training firm, and creator of the series.

Barbara Kappler Mikk, Ph.D, is Associate Director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of Minnesota, where she is responsible for intercultural training programmes.

Basma Ibrahim DeVries, PH.D is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University in St Paul, Minnesota, and conducts intercultural training workshops for educational and community groups.

This article was first published in AMED's Organisations & People journal, Vol 12 No 4 (November 2005).  Check out our AMED Organisations & People section for more details.

Diverse communication styles can present rich opportunities, yet too often people misunderstand one another.  The authors offer a five-factor model from their new book  which can help leverage cultural differences for maximum productivity and relational satisfaction.

You have heard it hundreds of times: cultural differences impact how we work together. You have also heard the claims that diverse perspectives coming together can strengthen results. Certainly, being aware that cultural differences may impact working relationships is important. It is a different skill altogether to know what particular differences – be they cultural, personal, or organisational – are making an impact and how to leverage them for a positive outcome.

Communication style is a critical area in which differences in cultural, personal, and organisational experiences can influence whether or not a meeting, email, or employee relationship is successful. This article introduces key tools for determining the communication style differences that make a difference, and for leveraging these differences for improved productivity and enhanced on-the-job satisfaction. Let’s begin with a story.

Mike and Tanaka

Nearly twenty years ago, Dianne, an intercultural trainer and consultant, was asked by a U.S. American corporate President, Mike, to ‘help him out’ with a Japanese subsidiary President, Tanaka-san, whom he was on the verge of firing. He asked Dianne to help him discover whether he was missing something. He just couldn’t communicate with Tanaka-san, and Mike worried that Tanaka had no viable strategy for creating a return on investment. Tanaka-san felt his strategy was the only hope of creating a return on investment. He felt he’d presented his strategy to Mike repeatedly, and Mike just ‘didn’t get it’.

Dianne interviewed Mike and Tanaka-san extensively. She knew their business well and had worked with them for several years. She coached both of them individually, in their native tongues, in an attempt to help them understand each other’s expectations, values, and styles.

After about four months, during a face-to-face meeting, Mike growled at Tanaka-san in exasperation, “This is just not working out. You say you understand but then you don’t take action! I have no idea where you’re coming from or where you’re going!” Tanaka-san stood up, walked over to Mike, pointed his finger in Mike’s face, and shouted, “You don’t listen! I have told you and told you, clearly, directly, over and over, and you don’t hear! You have your own priorities and what I tell you just doesn’t fit your thinking!”

Dianne shrunk under the table hoping to disappear. All her efforts seemed fruitless. Surely Tanaka-san, an executive she perceived as highly competent, was about to be fired. To her surprise, Mike leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said calmly, “Tanaka-san, I think that for the first time in the five years we’ve worked together, I finally know where you stand. Thank you.” It was a breakthrough. Things didn’t get rosy after that, but Mike and Tanaka-san worked together with enhanced productivity for several more years.

In this story, differences in communication style led Mike to evaluate Tanaka-san as an ineffectual and incompetent executive, and led Tanaka-san to evaluate Mike as stubborn and unwilling to listen. In fact, neither person was evaluating any job competencies other than the other person’s ability to communicate with him in a credible manner. Mike and Tanaka-san’s communication styles were so disjointed that despite Herculean effort and active facilitation, they remained unable to understand one another. It was only a moment of ‘nothing more to lose’ exasperation on both sides that caused Mike and Tanaka to see beyond the communication patterns each person was hooked into using.

Communication style is the way in which we communicate, a pattern of verbal and nonverbal behaviours that comprises our preferred ways of giving and receiving information in a specific situation. (Hofner Saphiere, Kappler Mikk, & Ibrahim DeVries, 2005, p. 5)

Communication style differences have long been recognized as central to communication misunderstandings (Barnlund, 1975; Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988; Hall, 1976; Kaplan, 1988; Norton, 1983).

We have all had similar encounters in which communication style disconnects wreaked turmoil on the people involved and the jobs they were doing. One fundamental question for managers and human resource professionals is: How do we skill ourselves to effectively understand team members’ styles and respond to them? Moreover, how do we skill our staff so that they can do the same? Our new book, Communication Highwire (Hofner Saphiere, Kappler Mikk, & Ibrahim DeVries, 2005), offers a model and several techniques for analyzing and using differences in communication. The story of Mike and Tanaka is used to illustrate the model.
Five-Factor Model

The first factor, context, refers to the circumstances in which an event occurs. Context includes the physical context (place or medium of communication), the roles of the people involved, the historical context (the shared history between the cultural groups to which the communicators belong), chronology (e.g., Have the communicators discussed this topic previously? What was the process? What was the outcome?), language, relationship, and constraints (such as time and interruptions).

In the story above, many contextual factors affected Tanaka and Mike’s interactions. The 17-hour time difference in their simultaneous communication caused irritation for one or the other; their meetings were rarely on ‘neutral’ ground; and even though Mike is a native English speaker and Tanaka is a proficient English speaker, they found that they spoke different versions of the English language. Mike had a supervisory role over Tanaka and at the same time was dependent on Tanaka to oversee the Japanese subsidiary’s operations – how the two men viewed their roles and relationship varied and impacted the way they communicated. Meeting on neutral ground, sharing and understanding role and relationship expectations, and consciously bridging language differences would help these two men leverage their differences.

The second factor in the model is goals, meaning the outcome we intend to accomplish. There is an important distinction between short-term and long-term goals, as well as acknowledgement that there are different sequences involved in reaching one’s goals. Mike and Tanaka shared long-term goals (success of the operation), but differed in their short-term goals for achieving success – Mike saw the need to secure a quick return on investment, while Tanaka felt it incumbent to build market share. Mike felt that communicating his main point succinctly, not complicating it with unnecessary background information such as explanations of investment procedures in the U.S., would best help him achieve his goal. Tanaka, on the other hand, believed that if he presented the background information clearly (Japanese market and economic climate), Mike would reach the same conclusions that he had, and there would be no need to openly disagree with his boss. To effectively leverage our differences we need to take the time and use the listening styles that will allow us to fully understand one another’s goals. In addition, when understanding breaks down, taking time to analyse our own short-term and long-term goals, and giving careful consideration as to whether or not these are understood by others, can be a key in understanding and bridging the communication breakdown. 

How we see ourselves, our self-concept, is a third factor to take into account to improve interaction. Mike’s self-concept was that of a go-getter: the man who takes charge, effective, efficient, energetic, and vigorous. Tanaka-san saw himself as an aesthete: driven by discipline, a man of few words who could cut through the extraneous to reveal the core truth, a man able to tolerate and rise up in the face of adversity. These differing self-concepts resulted in the two men talking past each other. Mike spoke in strong clear statements, expecting a quick response, and Tanaka gave lengthy explanations implying a clear course of action. To effectively utilise both styles, it is important neither to cling to our sense of self nor to give it up to fit in. Rather, we look for ways to be ourselves, understand the other, and synchronise our communication.

The self-concept factor also encourages us to consider the impact of the interaction itself, by asking, “Does the interaction appear to influence how the communicators feel about themselves and their own competence?” Further, it challenges us to consider how our own identity and the identities of those involved affect the interaction.

These three factors are connected to the fourth, values – the priorities and principles that guide our behaviour.  Here we are encouraged to look for motivations, for the core values that lie beneath the surface by asking the question “why might she or he do that?” Further, we are asked to consider “how do the communication styles employed perpetuate certain cultural values?” Tanaka-san valued respect, contemplation, and truth. Thus, he spoke slowly, softly, thoughtfully, with a feeling of authority, and paused frequently. Mike valued action, results, and honesty. He communicated quickly, in short frequent bursts, directly, and to the point. Understanding their own values and how those values impact their communication would go far to enabling these two to tolerate and indeed gain something from the other’s style of contributing.

The fifth and final factor, communication style repertoire, is also of great importance. This factor takes into account the amount of and ability to use diverse communicative behaviours. Tanaka had a fairly broad repertoire: he was bilingual, he had worked for decades in a western company in Japan, and he had learned to be fairly forthright, persuasive, verbally assertive, and interactive. Mike’s repertoire was a bit more limited. While he had traveled extensively, he was usually in a position of authority and therefore rarely had to question the validity of his communication style. He was not able to see the ‘sense’ in Tanaka’s proposals, he spoke a bit too quickly for Tanaka to fully understand, and he was unable to adequately filter out his use of slang expressions and sports metaphors to use a more internationally standard version of English.

Applying the five-factor model to a particular situation allows us to better understand the breadth and depth of what occurred in a particular event. In our book we offer dozens of questions to guide reflection and self-discovery about communication styles. Use of the five-factor model to understand communicative intention in context enables the people involved to be:

  1. Authentic—They are not forced to lose their uniqueness, to conform to an artificially created corporate culture, but are able to bring their full selves, with all their talents, to the workplace.
  2. Intentional—They do not behave out of habit, blind to the effects of culture and tradition, but reflect on desired outcomes and the situation at hand to purposefully choose how to approach the given situation.
  3. Develop Critical Mass—Intercultural competence is not something one person can effectively do alone; it requires a society and organisational culture that support and encourage that competence, and other people with whom to reinforce and develop competence.

In addition to developing this five-factor model, Communication Highwire emphasises the importance of being descriptive in our language. Inability to describe behaviour neutrally can appear judgmental, causing defensiveness, while an ability to describe behaviour better allows us to understand how the other person in the interaction intended the behaviour in question. Another example demonstrates the advantage of focusing on description. Here is what transpired:

Barbara was facilitating an intercultural communication workshop for U.S. American staff in understanding common challenges faced by international students. During the break, her co-worker, Antonella, approached her, requesting that Barbara “tell the participants that they really need to understand the value of time and how time is so important to Americans.” Barbara said, “Tell me more about what you want me to say.” Antonella, who was raised in Italy, repeated her request and added that U.S. Americans do not often know how much emphasis they place on time. Barbara asked if there were certain behaviours that seemed most bothersome to her, as a non-American, and listed some of the behaviours from the descriptor list included in Communication Highwire. When Barbara mentioned differences in how conversations are ended, Antonella said, “That’s it! That’s it! People focus so much on time that they don’t even take time to say goodbye!” Barbara then asked directly, “Does it bother you that when I am talking to you I often walk away when I think we are done, without any leave-taking behaviours?” Antonella said, “Yes!”

This breakthrough in discovering a specific difference that was making a major difference enabled them to consider how they might then adapt their behaviours to better meet the needs of the other. This small difference was part of a larger communication style or pattern (around the value of time). While neither may be able or wise to adapt her entire communication style, this small behaviour is one both can leverage: Antonella can remind Barbara that she would like to end the conversation differently; she can joke about the difference; or she can accept the difference, realising it is not intended to be rude. This insight also provides Barbara more options: she can take more time and pay more attention to leave-taking; she can explain her behaviour to Antonella; or she can use humour to lighten the situation.

Barbara and Antonella’s ability to reflect upon the specific behaviours involved in their interaction and to engage in a dialogue about the behaviours that bothered Antonella allowed them both to understand what was happening more accurately and broaden their communication style repertoire to bridge the difference more effectively. They were able to leverage their communication style differences to enhance their productivity and pleasure in working together.

To assist readers of our book in becoming familiar with differences that can make a critical difference, we provide a two-page ‘Descriptor Checklist’ of dozens of particular behaviours shown to make a difference in intercultural communication. These descriptors include such areas as how a conversation starts, how apologies are used, how various nonverbals are used, how information is organized, how emotion is expressed, and much more. In explaining each descriptor, we provide detailed examples to aid understanding, so that you can use the descriptors as a tool to consider what differences might be a source of misunderstanding in your own interactions and thus, enhance your effectiveness in day-to-day communications.  As individuals, managers, and human resource professionals, finding specific tools that help us to pinpoint and then leverage these potentially divisive differences positively impacts our interactions and the functioning of our organisations.

Traditional approaches to diversity and intercultural sensitivity often teach us to simply tolerate, manage around, or minimize our differences, stopping short of providing proactive ideas for truly using our differences for the benefit of all.  The next step to move beyond understanding is finding ways to leverage differences for maximum productivity and relational satisfaction. Exploring how communication style differences manifest themselves in supervisory relationships and teamwork is fundamental to creating ways to work together that enhance both productivity and satisfaction. Through metaphor, examples, new models, challenges to the way we’ve been considering communication style, reflection questions, an appendix with a historical record of the heritage of communication styles, and more than two dozen activities, Communication Highwire offers something for every reader.


Barnlund, D.C. (1975). Public and Private Self in Japan and the United States:
Communication Styles of Two Cultures.  Tokyo: Simile Press, pp: 14-15.

Gudykunst, W.B. & Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Cultural and Interpersonal Communication.
Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Hall, E.T.  (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Hofner Saphiere, D., Kappler Mikk, B., Ibrahim DeVries, B. (2005). Communication Highwire:
Leveraging the Power of Diverse Communication Styles. Boston, MA: Intercultural

Kaplan, R. (1988). Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education.  In J. Wurzel
(Ed.), Toward Multiculturalism: A Reader in Multicultural Education. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Norton, R. W. (1983). Communicator style: Theory, Application, and Measures. 
Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

© Basma Ibrahim, Barbara Kappler Mikk, Dianne Hofner Saphiere and the Association for Management Education and Development (AMED), all rights reserved.  Check out our AMED Organisations & People section or view their website for more journal articles

Click here to return to library of AMED's Organisations & People Journal

blog comments powered by Disqus