Joseph Tabers, CSP, President of Productive Training, Inc.
Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of the live webinar delivered by Joseph Tabers in 2023. His comments have been edited for clarity and length.
You can read the summary article here as part of the April 2023 Retirement InSight and Trends Newsletter, worth 1.0 CE when read in its entirety (after passing the online quiz.)
You may also choose to take the full length course Adapting Your Communication Style for More Effective Client Relations for 1.0 hour continuing education (CE) credit.
To understand our client’s communication style, usually, the first place to start is with ourselves. Think about what comes easy for you; what are you good at? For example, some people are good listeners, some are good at asking questions, and some are good at patience.
Today’s communication styles are well documented. We need to appreciate the differences knowing that we will not change the communication style of another individual, client, or otherwise. The best bet is to start with our communication and then adapt to theirs to look for better, tighter connections. We should be able to appreciate their strengths, respect their weaknesses, and work within them.
Think about where you want to adapt to your communication style and where to improve. The goal of adapting our communication style to that of our clients is to build more trust, rapport, and better connections so that you have lasting and sustainable relationships.
Why Bother Adapting Your Communication Style?
I once had a client who spent over $1 million asking clients and customers, “What do you want when someone is servicing you?” This is still a valid question.
First, people want us to be understanding and understand their situation. Everybody thinks their situation is unique. In many ways, they are, but they want us to understand what they are dealing with, their concerns and fears about the future, and their current finances.
Second, they come to you because you have knowledge. It is about more than what you and I know but how we can use what we know to help them.
Third, take responsibility. People like us to provide answers and take responsibility for getting them the things they need to make an informed decision.
Finally, we need to show we care, have a heart for right, and care about them and their future.
Brief History of Communication Style Assessments
There are over 100 different style assessments, be it personality style, behavior style, or communication style assessments. The good news is that they all go back to core research. In 1921, Carl Jung defined four main functions that all human beings have: sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling. He then looked at the range of how it is different for people.
In 1928, William Marston wrote a book called Emotions of Normal People. Before that, there were many studies on deviant and poor behaviors, and no one studied normal behavior, and William Marston defined ranges for normal behavior in a good, healthy way. Beyond that, Keirsey-Bates, Myers-Briggs, and other assessments started in the mid-60s and early 70s. Style assessments all have similar core traits in that they try to define a range of behavior that we all express when interacting with one or more people.
Then finally, the military started mainstreaming style assessments in the 1970s. Corporate America then jumped on board, and they have been utilizing them ever since. Over 15 million assessments have been taken over the years. Over the last 20 years, our firm has done thousands for our clients. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people say they are very valuable and helpful. Once in a while, someone says, “Yes, I pretty much knew that about myself already.” That is a pretty self-aware person, but even then, they will argue that it is nice to have it in black and white and in print.
A Preview of Understanding Your Communication Style
Most assessments have you compare things, such as words or adjectives that describe your behavior.
For example, in this assessment, if you had to think about the four qualities on the first row of each column, Demanding, Convincing, Passive, and Careful, which is more of your natural style? Are you more demanding, or are you more convincing? Are you more passive, or are you more calculated and careful? You choose the one most like you in each category and give it four points by putting a four by it. You would put a one by the one that is least like you. There are four choices per category. Scores are added up, and a communication style is assessed.
Ways We Can Measure Behavior
We can measure behavior through assessments and observation. A common assessment today is based on what we call the DISC model, or D, I, S, and C.
The first thing that is measured is that left to right scale. Some call it the “introvert/extrovert scale” or someone who is more outbound in their communication versus someone who is more reflective and inbound in their communication.
Think about that for a minute. If you had to put a tick mark on the line here somewhere, where would you be? Would you be a little further to the right side? Are you more extroverted in your approach? In other words, are you a conversation initiator? Are you first to stick out your hand and say, “Hi, I am Joe, and you are…?” The more often you do that, the more you start conversations or initiate, the more likely you are comfortable, and you have more of those traits to the right. Likewise, if you are a good listener and more reflective and introspective, you probably have more of those traits to the left.
Some people also use an energy question. Do you get more energy when around people? Does that build you up and excite you, or do people drain you? Would you prefer instead to work alone? “Leave me alone, and I can get my work done.” Sometimes those come into play with behavior as well.
The second thing that gets measured is the top to bottom and what we call openness or sometimes known as responsiveness, or that vertical line. How responsive are people with their face and their expressions? The more serious and poker-faced someone is, the more likely they are to be above the midline.
The more open and emotive they are, the more likely they will show their poker hand. They are showing their reaction. You can see this dynamic in your family and friends. Introversion, extraversion, seriousness versus openness, and friendliness or more emotiveness. How about you and some of your favorite clients, or how about you and some of your more challenging clients? Think about the dynamics that go on there.
I mentioned the acronyms D, I, S, and C earlier—these four traits we all have in our personality to different degrees. Often what happens, though, is one or two of those will rise higher in your natural style than the others, just like they will in your clients.
The “D” quality is when someone is more serious and they are more outspoken, sometimes known as direct and even decisive. The joke about that is the “git ‘er done” style or “Okay. Let’s do this. Let us get down to business. I do not have time for small talk.” So, the direct style, the more of that someone has in their personality, the more obvious it is to you.
The next style still on the extraversion style you will hear about is the “I” quality. The I quality is for what we call influencing, and some call it the expressive style. Are you someone who, again, is still extroverted but not as direct, candid, or unfiltered, or are you more of a people person where you do show emotion and you try to influence them with your words, your stories, etc.? Both of those qualities, the D and the I qualities, are more extroverted.
The “S” quality is for steady, stable, sometimes called easygoing or amiable, more laid back, and more likely to think about things. They still like relationships, are friendly, and show emotions but are not as much of an initiator. They will reciprocate a conversation if you start it, but they may not be the first to initially stick out their hand and show some assertiveness.
The “C” quality is conscientiousness, sometimes known as an analytical quality that basically is the stereotype of the thinker. It is someone who gives things thought; they like facts, information, and data. They may ask more questions than the average person.
Both of these are very task-driven behaviors on the top. The D and the C are task focused, whereas the bottom styles are more relationship focused. Dynamics that go on with your clients might be whether they want to get right down to business versus do they want to get a cup of coffee or tea, settle in, and talk a little bit about you and them. It is going to be different for different people.
For example, you can easily notice a person with a high D quality. They would say, “Oh yes. I am pretty direct, and I am pretty blunt.” The higher the D, the more direct, maybe even pushy or blunt, they might come across, but you also notice this person has the C quality. The higher the C, the more task oriented. They have a double dose of task behavior. I and S are more relationship in the center. The higher the S, usually the slower the pace. The lower the S, in this case, demonstrates that this is a fast-paced, “get on with it” kind of person.
How Do Behavior Styles Apply to Client Interactions?
To that point, then, let us look at how this all relates.
If someone observed you, what would they see? Let us start with the “D” quality. If 70% or more of your style is D, people will notice you are direct in your communication. You are competitive. You are to the point, problem-solving, driven, and so on. It is easy to spot the D quality because it is usually someone very comfortable and confident with themselves; some would even say, at times, unfiltered.
The “I” quality is still confident but more people focused. Enthusiastic, sociable, and trusting, they like building those relationships. You’ll see a full range of voice used with people in the upper half, with the D quality being more serious in their voice. So again, some similarities between the two on the right, but definitely differences in task focus versus relationship focus initially.
The “S” qualities are patience, friendliness, candidness, honesty, sincerity, and maybe a little bit more moderate in their approach, even calculated at times. The “C” quality is a slower pace, more factual, comfortable with silence, and more controlled in their demeanor.
Of all those traits, first, which ones are yours? Once you know your trait, then ask yourself, which clients do I already hit it off with easily? Very often, likes to attract likes. Someone might like your style because they have a similar style, or it is possible for someone to like your style because you have something they do not have. You may be more analytical than they are, and they admire that. It is good to start thinking about what has worked for you in the past, who are those relationships you connect with now, and where are the ones where it is a little more oil and water.
Ask yourself, “What strength do I currently have when dealing with clients?” You could say you are a numbers person. Anybody in the financial field may have that gift of numbers, but some of you had to work harder. Some people are wired that way and think that way; others choose it, and they have to work at it and learn it.
When working with other people, what is a friction or tension point extreme where it would be like mixing oil and water? It might be directly opposite or diagonal to your style.
National Averages for Communication Styles
Let’s look at some natural averages because many people want to know who is the most common of those styles. What should I expect a higher percentage of? I cannot say this for you because, obviously, national averages only represent some people, and people coming to you may be more financially astute than others. They may represent the general population.
If you had to take a guess, which style do you think has the most people? Yes, you would be correct for those who said the S style. Forty percent or most people that fill out assessments have more of that steady, stable S style.
It makes sense if you think about it because they are the worker bees, often those who stay on until retirement. They are the ones that will work hard at their savings. They are stable, steady, and reliable. A lot of those are the average workforce.
The I quality represents the second most common style. It could be a school teacher or salesperson, but people that like people and are in a profession where they enjoy using their social skills. Twenty-eight percent have more of that emotive quality which may be for you might be a good reminder that, yes, we all know that money affects emotions, but maybe even more so for a high percentage of the population here.
Only 18% have the D quality, which for many, is their greatest challenge. But the C quality makes up 14% of the population. Not everybody is an accountant, and not everybody is a financial planner or an analyst. Even though you may have friends and a lot of them in that upper left corner, if that is you, it is still not the highest national average. Be aware of that. People are wired differently. They all do not have their highest bar graph where you might have your highest bar graph. Another way of saying all this is that there is a good incentive, as the title of this slide says, for adapting.
To say it another way, we will flip it inside out here. Even if you have the S quality, 60% of people do not have that S quality even if you might have it. Or to say it with the I quality, 72% may not be as social or friendly as some of you are if you have a lot of that high quality. Eighty-two percent, or eight out of 10 people, do not have that D or direct “get her done” approach. With the C quality, 86% aren’t as factual and well-prepared.
How to Adapt Your Communication Style for Your Client
Clients might come to you because they will say, “I am not good at math,” or, “I could do this, but it just makes me stressed.” There is something about facts and details that some people love, and maybe that is you, and some things that others do not like, like planning and crunching up numbers. So, it is a good reminder and incentive for us to make an effort to adapt.
I have heard people say, “I just treat everybody the same.” Well, and good to a point, but that is the Golden Rule. Some of you may have heard that the Platinum Rule is to treat them the way they want to be treated or adapt to their style in a way that works for them.
Let us say it is two months from now, and you are saying, “Joe, this is all well and good, but how am I going to remember or even begin to figure out where someone in my client base is at?” Well, we all can ask questions.
A couple of questions you could ask yourself are the left to right. What am I seeing? What am I hearing if it is a phone call, initially? Am I hearing someone more introspective, reflective, and slower paced? Am I hearing someone more expressive? So, decide if they are to the left to right and put a flag in your mind. What are you seeing and hearing more?
If you meet someone face-to-face, what do you see in their body language? What do you see more in their approach? Are they more expressive, or are they more reserved and introspective? Once you ask that question and answer it yourself, you can go to the next one, top to bottom. Am I seeing some of that “let us get down to business” task-oriented? Are they asking very factual questions? The more task-oriented they are, looking at their watch, “get her done,” the more likely they have the C or the D quality, more of the task behaviors.
Then, you will also know from their communication whether they are on the left side or right side of that. If they say, “Let me tell you about my grandma and why I am here. “She did not plan,” or “She did plan well,” where you get stories that will give you hints about their relationships and that they need to share that with you. You do not have to be a psychologist to remember this. It is two questions. What do you see more? What do you hear more? More tasks versus relationships? More introspective versus expressive, outbound?
Also, think about other basic adaptations of your style. What would that look like if you stepped into their world or comfort zone?
Let’s say a client is direct. “Look, I only have 30 minutes. Can we get to this and get this done right away?” If you have that, what can you do? Project more of a sense of urgency. Speed up a bit. Get to the point faster. If you ask questions, keep them short. “Do you want me to get back to you by phone or email?” Go into their world. If you want to drive them crazy, slow it down and ask 100 questions. They will answer questions, but they like fast-paced and to the point.
Let’s say you need to adapt more to the I quality, or maybe this is you. If you are more of a people person, ramp it up, be more task-driven, and be more objective.
These are basic, initial adaptations that you could take. Speed it up. Slow it down. Be more task-focused, more relationship-focused. You probably do it already with your relatives and friends intuitively; now, do it more intentionally to adapt your communication for more effective client relations.
If you know what a client expects, you can prepare for that meeting, assuming you have done a little observational awareness beforehand. For example, not surprisingly, the D wants you to be knowledgeable, not waste their time, ask questions, and get to the point. Give them options and choices that let them have control and make the decision. On the other side of the task, the C style does not want much chit-chat, and they do not want someone to be winging it. They want well-prepared, use facts, and show where you came to your conclusions. So again, very factual-oriented, and you can meet their needs that way.
For the lower half, as we already talked about, make it an enjoyable experience, maybe even use your imagination. Talk about what planning will do for them in the future five or ten years. Again, appeal to their need to make this a fun experience, unlike a trip to the dentist’s office. Then lastly, the S style. They are looking for a genuine person they can trust in a relaxed fashion, not feel rushed out the door by someone who sets aside a block of time. Like good bedside manners with the doctor, right? You have time to ask the questions you want and feel they have your best needs in mind.
Ways to adapt your communication style:
- If you want to think about high-octane clients with more D quality, get to the task quickly. Do not waste time. Be business-like, be prepared, and be serious. They do not need a lot of smiles and glad handling. Think of a businessperson, a CEO with a tight schedule; “I am already late. I have to run.”
- The I quality, the lower half of that extroverted side. They do like time for socializing. So, if you were to ask questions about family and friends, or if you were to ask questions about how their parents planned or did not plan for retirement or the future, and you say, “I want to make this an enjoyable experience for you,” and begin talking about the exciting side of it and what that means for future trips and vacations; there are lots of possibilities there. Some of you already have some of this naturally in your DNA. Some of you may have to work at smiling more. I say that jokingly, but I know sincerely that when I work with some people that are serious types, sometimes they do need to work at lightening up and making it a more enjoyable experience.
- For the S quality, think of the average worker that wants some time, and they do not want to be rushed out the door. Sincerity is the mantra here. Show that you care, be fair, respect their time, and if you need to, reschedule a follow-up or second meeting so they get their questions answered.
- Finally, the C-quality clients will likely come prepared. They might even have some work already done on their research and give it to you. They may have already compared you and your approach to others, so you can even ask those questions. “Have you compared us to anyone else? Tell me what you did or did not like about some of the other planners or folks you met with.” Be organized, be prepared, and know what questions you want to ask them. “I have a few questions I want to ask you to ensure I get some answers.” Pre-questionnaires might come in handy, too, for them to fill something out before you meet with them to make you even more prepared.
Some people also hear about things like the Myers-Briggs. Our point with that is that it takes and divides each of these four components into basically four more quadrants. You end up with 16 types in the Myers-Briggs. It’s a good tool if you have the time and resources to do that, but it can also be daunting to remember 16 different traits. So, let’s keep it simple here with just four quadrants for starters and the two questions in Item 3 below to ask yourself.
- Knowing your most dominant trait is good, but work to self-manage it. Avoid over-extending it!
- When dealing with other styles, reflect on their style preferences to better connect.
- When working with others, ask yourself the two questions for better understanding:
a. Are they more introspective/reflective or outspoken?
b. Are they more task-focused or relationship-focused?
- When in doubt – listen, observe, appreciate, then “adapt” your communication style as you go to help build more trust and reduce tension.
Joe is an expert in improving workplace presentations, interpersonal communication skills and relationships. Over the last 25 years his team has helped more than 450 organizations and thousands of individuals increase their workplace effectiveness by enhancing their communication skills. As a proven professional speaker, author and communication coach, Joe will help you connect better with audiences from high-level professionals to frontline workers.
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©2023, Joseph Tabers, CSP, President of Productive Training, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.