The Science of Communication and Connection

By Jeremy B. Teitelbaum

5 minutes

Brain research offers clues on why people have differing communication styles.

A fundamental tenet of doing business is that effective communication between co-workers, departments and customers is essential—and occasionally challenging.

On the list of the many responsibilities of credit union managers and executives, facilitating open and productive communications with members and among employees lands near the top. We all accept that human beings have different and unique ways of communicating, speaking and interacting, and we all have had the experience of struggling to connect because of those differences. Recent scientific research is revealing how and why we are different and building a better understanding of what we can do to better connect with each other.

You Say Potato…

New medical imaging technologies allow scientists to monitor how different parts of the human brain are activated when people speak and listen to each other. This research suggests that the different ways people communicate may be related to our unique brains, which develop in response to our singular life experiences and learning. Thus, we are “wired” to think, speak, listen and act in highly individual ways.

These findings may be at odds with the way we have been teaching communication skills—as if there is one right way to communicate. In reality, there may be many right ways, but problems arise when people process communication in different ways. If we continue to attempt skills-based training that fails to recognize these biological differences, these problems will persist and perhaps even become more deep-rooted and serious.

It’s not that people don’t want to connect. It may be that they can’t, unless they develop a new understanding about differing communication styles. A skills-based training program that teaches people that everyone communicates in the same way is a little like asking your dog to meow to your cat. No matter how much training you undertake, the canine-feline communication gap will remain.

Rethinking the Human Brain

Early theories about human brain function made much about its division into two parts, or hemispheres. The left hemisphere was thought to be the base of logic, reason and language, while the right hemisphere was credited as the creative center of the brain. However, recent scientific findings have shown us that this line of thinking is oversimplified. Our brains are far more complex.

The brain has four pairs of lobes surrounding a complex center. Each area plays a role when we speak with and listen to others. Although they are interconnected and work in unison to help us speak, think and act, these sections of the brain have specialized capacities. We use all these lobes to function in our day-to-day lives, but research suggests that individual differences in dominant brain areas influence our social interactions, thinking and behaviors:

  • The frontal lobes are primarily concerned with reasoning and problem-solving, as well as our ability to be social and connect with other people.
  • The lobes near the sides and top of the skull are involved with movement, orientation, perception and processing of sensory stimuli.
  • The occipital lobes are responsible for vision and understanding what we see.
  • The temporal lobes house auditory reception and some speech-producing functions.
  • The center of the brain, sometimes referred to as the “reptile brain,” is the seat of instinct. When we feel fear, for example, our brain instantly triggers our body to respond with a fight or flight response.

Each of these areas has some responsibility in our everyday thoughts and behaviors. Together, they make us who we are.

Five Communication Types

One area of my work in business and personal communication has involved applying this evolving understanding of brain research to how people interact—particularly how these five areas of the brain influence our communication type. Each of us has some principal influence and combination of influences by these brain areas that makes us communicate in our own unique style. I have identified five general communication types or ways of speaking and interacting. See if you recognize your type and those of others you interact with regularly in your personal and professional life:

Social communicators are strong at social interaction, comfortable in social situations, good at reading people and body language, and often focused on making sure there is harmony in a group.

Contextual communicators do not like to leave things up to the context of a situation and would rather “tell it like it is,” even at the risk of being viewed as blunt or politically incorrect. They are direct and to the point. In some cultures, this communication style may be viewed as overly strong and forceful.

Linguistic communicators are focused on language and words. They often prefer to talk about details and are quiet literal. They tend to enjoy reading and may be effective writers. If you ask a linguistic communicator, “Can you hand me the salt?” the response may be “Yes, I can.” You may need to rephrase the question to actually get the salt.

Visual communicators like to talk in pictures and are good at describing what they see. They often enjoy the visuals arts as well. A visual communicator might say, “Do you see what I’m saying?” (And, of course, a linguistic communicator would respond, “How can I see what you’re saying? But I do hear what you’re saying.”)

Cerebral communicators are deep thinkers who tend to take time to compose carefully what they say. In groups, they may come across as the quiet ones. They speak less, but when they do, their contributions are typically well thought out and calculated. They need time to process what they are hearing.

Most people have a dominant type that strongly influences how they communicate with others. After having administered the survey to nearly 500 participants, my preliminary research findings suggest that about 20 percent of people seem to have two dominant types and a very few, about 5 percent, may regularly exhibit three communication styles. The challenge is getting people with different communication types to talk so they can understand each other. That will be the topic of the July Leadership Matters column.

Jeremy Teitelbaum offers individual and group training to help professionals speak more effectively, feel confident, and persuade and lead others. He is the author of the forthcoming book Speak From the Brain: The Cognitive Science of Communication and Connection, which includes an online assessment to determine your communication type. He is on the faculty of California Polytechnic State University and has been teaching, training, researching and consulting in communication for 20 years.

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