December 12, 2019
A Study In Communication
Author: Rachit Khare, Project Manager & Full Stack Developer
At FreshWorks, every month we have a topic of the month and invite a speaker to present. The topic of the month for September was Communication and I duly volunteered. Communication is something I am quite passionate about. I have lived in many cultures and I find communication is a skill that is so nuanced it provides endless opportunities to learn and grow. To be an excellent communicator is a pursuit that is never ending and I thought it might be a good opportunity for me to pass on some of the things I’ve learnt and demonstrate some tips and techniques that I use in the hope that some may find it useful.
This particular lunch and learn focused on an overview of communication and specifically how I use 16 personalities, which is based on the Mayers-Briggs Type Index (MBTI), in my communication style. I have expanded this into a medium post that will hopefully provide some valuable information to those who couldn’t attend and for readers outside of FreshWorks. This post contains the following sections:
An overview of communication
Styles of communication where we focus on DISC and MBTI
My own journey with MBTI
Some of my personal strategies for communication
Communication is many things, but in order for us to focus, it is important to narrow down on a definition. The one I’d like to focus on is the following:
The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings
Here we are talking about not only articulation in written or spoken form but also we must keep in mind non-verbal communication. You don’t need to say something to convey a feeling. Most times, if one plays close attention, what one feels can be easily gleaned from their facial expression or, in the case of written communication, when one does not reply to a message or email. This just goes to say that not saying something at all is also saying something. This paradox makes communication a very difficult skill to master.
If we are to go down the road of honing our skills, it is important to understand the different styles that we may come across. This is in my mind a useful step to take because communication involves more than one person. But where do we begin to understand the landscape of different personalities that we might encounter? Luckily, I am not the first person to have sought an answer to this question. There is sufficient research out there which we can look to in order to assess the different styles of communication we may encounter. I will go through two of these in this article:
The DISC Model
16 personalities (MBTI)
I remember DISC from the time I enrolled in the MBA program. In our boot camp, we were asked to take a DISC assessment which yielded a report about our natural style of communication and our adapted style. Each letter is DISC stands for something:
D – Dominant
I – Influencer
S – Steady
C – Conscientious
This Atlassian article talks about all these in depth. It was a wonderful read and I highly recommend you read it. I will post some screenshots from this article and briefly summarize it for those in a hurry.
I used to be what they call a “High D High I” which means that the Dominant and Influencing parts of my personality were much higher than the other aspects. Highly Dominant personalities are categorized by efficiency and I could see that a lot in myself. I would (and to some extent still do) like to start meetings with an agenda and get right to it – pleasantries can be saved for later 🙂. I do hold some empathy for those who have a strong dominant side because they often come across as hard and seem to lack empathy. Many times I would sense the ire coming across people who thought I was being impatient and insensitive and I can see how this is something I struggled with.
As someone who was highly dominant but also a strong influencer, I was easily excitable. As the article points out, Influencers hold an optimistic view of the world and I found that to be the case in most of my endeavours. If I have changed from the time I first took the assessment, I would hazard a guess that the dominant side has eased up a bit and the Influencer side has gone up. I find myself now quite excitable when it comes to exploring new ideas and find myself more people oriented than I was back in the day.
The Steady type is also a good mix with the influencer. Steady people are relaxed and support oriented. I find this quite a desirable aspect, especially in good HR professionals. These are thorough and cooperative individuals and make for excellent team players. A combination of high S and high I makes for a very people oriented personality and I would agree with that.
The last aspect of the DISC profile is the Conscientious type which is characterized by a systematic, logical and cautious approach. These are the types of folks that require clear expectations and details upfront. Characterizing feedback on their work as criticism will not go down well with this type. I was lucky enough to work in a team in the MBA program that would have all personality types available amongst the four of us and it was one of the better teams I was a part of.
I do want to say that the DISC profile and the MBTI are tools that I use to merely scratch the surface of someone’s style of communication. These are by no means a referendum on one’s character. The only use these tools have is to come up with a starting point and adapt from there. I use it much like in Texas Hold’em when you put someone on a hand based on the position they have and the size of the bet they make.
16personalities.com is a website that comes with a personality test based on the Mayers-Briggs Type Index (MBTI). Whenever an employee first joins FreshWorks, we ask them to go through the test and we have a little cut out on the wall with everyone’s photo next to the personality type that they belong to. You can see it directly from the lunch table so I find myself looking at it quite frequently. Since I interact mostly with people within the company, I find myself using this a lot. I haven’t found many websites that offer a free and accurate DISC assessment but 16 personalities is a website that allows you to take their personality test for free. They also have some excellent reading material on their research and descriptions for each personality type and across families of personalities. I will be discussing some of the family of personality types below.
Our first point of entry into understanding the different personalities comes from the spectrum available across 4 aspects:
Mind – How we interact with the world.
Energy – How we process information.
Nature – How we cope with emotions.
Tactics – How we approach planning and decision making.
There is also a fifth aspect that applies to each of the personality types called Identity. This aspect is split into assertive and turbulent individuals and talks about how each type responds to stress. The screenshot above talks about the different parts of an individual’s personalities and you can find more information on the 16 personalities website here.
16 personalities are a lot to cope with. Although I try to make it a point that I know everyone’s personality in the company, I find it more useful to look at the grouping of common personality types. We have 60+ people and if their photo is on the wall I can more often than not guess what type they are or once were. Groupings that the 16 personalities website depicts are discussed below.
The Analysts share the Intuitive (N) and Thinking (T) traits. When I interact with these personality types I put rationale and logic front and centre in my conversations. I don’t bother much with feelings and sensitivity because I know they will not be easily offended. Of course this is a spectrum so someone may be 51% T and 49% F so I’m not completely right all the time (this will be the case in most traits) but I find that this largely works. When it comes to problem solving, this personality type is the one I love working with the most. Especially the debater type I have found to be extremely collaborative. I perhaps find the debater a personality type that I can easily relate to because I used to be one! There’s a section later on that talks about my journey across the different personality types.
I reverse my approach of interaction with Analysts when it comes to Diplomats. I value empathy and feeling more when I interact with this family of personalities. Here I will pay particular attention to non-verbal communication because feelings are very nuanced and the intuitive nature of this family of personalities picks up on this. When interacting with this personality type I generally tone down the intensity and relax the eyes. I try to ensure that I smile more often and will roll out positive reinforcement more frequently. I find this generally a useful tactic when dealing with anyone who harbours the Feeling aspect in their personality. I have often found that when I have mis communicated with diplomats it’s because I have not demonstrated enough empathy.
When communicating with Sentinels I will try to ensure that they are provided with a clear set of observations and expectations. I find that they place a larger value on facts then most other personalities since that is how they process information. Clear directions and knowing the rules of the game I find helps this set of personalities prosper. Uncertainty is not their friend which is why they make for excellent administrators since you can’t really administer things when the rules are unclear.
If uncertainty was the bane of the sentinel family, it is the raison d’etre for this group. It’s almost as if they get a rush of adrenaline when it comes to doing something totally unpredictable! This personality type, similar to the sentinels, processes information using facts but their tactics are completely different. These individuals tend to probe further and are adept at spotting opportunities. As I have moved into this personality set recently, I can see that some of the actions and proposals I am making are as a result of spotting opportunities when discussing problems where no solution is clearly evident.
At this point I thought it might be interesting to share how my personality has changed over the years. I first came across 16 personalities when I graduated from the MBA program in 2015 and then a second time in 2017. Since then I have been taking the test whenever I feel I am doing something different and I have found that my personality type has always changed.
In university, I was not ready to accept anything that was taught as a given, so I can totally see how I embodied the debater personality type. Every idea was up for discussion and debate. Then I went to start a company and found that I was often in disagreement with my co-founder. A loss of confidence during that phase also resulted in an increase in my sensitivity as I felt that a direct confrontation would not be beneficial. This may explain my shift towards the Diplomatic family where I remained for some time even as I parted ways with that company and started at FreshWorks as a web developer.
Then came the shift to project management. I saw that instead of judging I was becoming more prospecting. When dealing with clients that are dealing with many things of their own and don’t quite know what they want, it helps to dig more into their requirement. I was having to balance between the needs of the development team and the priorities of the client which meant that I had to present the view point of the client in front of the team and vice versa. At this point I found my personality change again from Protagonist (ENFJ-T) to Campaigner (ENFP-A). An interesting thing also happened at this time – I started becoming a little more accustomed to stress and found that I moved from the turbulent side to the assertive side.
Recently, my role has become a little more dynamic. Outside of project management, I’m involved in a bunch of different activities including resourcing which at a services company like ours involves dealing with a lot of permutations, combinations and uncertainty. As I found myself doing more of these unconventional tasks I thought I would take the personality test again. Lo and behold, I found that I had changed again from Campaigner (ENFP-A) to Entertainer (ESFP-A).
Now that we have an understanding of the different styles of communication I wanted to explain some of the strategies that I have when it comes to communicating. Going back to our definition of communication i.e. the successful conveying of ideas or feelings, it makes sense to me to have a framework of processing these ideas and feelings. I am quite interested in philosophies which to me are nothing more than a view on living life. I became interested in this when I saw the end of the road in my startup and was in need to re-evaluate my life and career. I was introduced to Buddhism from my father and have found similar interest in Stoicism. To me, each of these are a view on living life which shape how we interact with the world.
I am neither a Buddhist or a Stoic, however I appreciate each philosophy. Thus, I find myself adopting certain aspects of each of these philosophies when it comes to certain situations.
As a project manager responsible for the successful delivery of the project in front of the Client externally and management internally, there are many times when I am exposed to stressful situations. In these moments, I find myself using some of the tenants of stoic philosophy. If ever there was a philosophy designed to cater to impossible situations, it is Stoicism. Stoicism believes that it is our duty to live in accordance with the laws of nature. Stoics do not regret the past and do not worry about the future (they share this in common with Buddhist practitioners). They are only concerned with aspects which are within the locus of their control. The 4 stoic virtues, which one may argue are nothing more than a breakdown of the single virtue of wisdom, are shown in the screenshot above. Here is how I attempt to apply them in stressful situations:
Wisdom – I know many people who are wiser than I am or may ever be. I think of a person I consider wise and think to myself “if this person was faced in this action, how would they behave?”. Most of the wise men and women I know have a few years on me as well. If some things that freaked me out in my younger days do not have the same effect on me today, then this must also be true for these individuals.
Courage – when debating a course of action in my head, I try and think if this is the right thing to do. Am I taking the easy way out? What would it take to do the right thing and is it necessary?
Justice – here, I pause to think about the consequences of a course of action I am considering on someone else. Is this going to jeopardize someone’s career? Is this going to come off badly on them? Is it an experience that they deserve to have or is it necessary for them to experience disappointment so that they may grow? These are not easy questions to answer by any means, but not considering them at all is not ideal either.
Temperance – this part deals with excess and speaks to a measured response to a certain situation. If we have found that someone has erred and we need to correct that behaviour, it doesn’t have to come with an excessive amount of guilt or shame. If we are going for a bold move, we must not be carried away such that we end up overreaching. Icarus’ story is a good one to think of in situations like these.
Outside of stressful situations, there are also delicate situations. Situations where you have to let an employee know that their performance is not up to scratch, even though they have tried their best and are visibly stressed. Those are the most delicate conversations and I’ve had a few of them in my time. In these moments, I find the Buddhist philosophy of thinking the following before you say something to be particularly useful. When considering what you say, consider if your words are:
Buddhism and Stoicism are not the only philosophies one might take. I have found that taking somewhat of a different approach in situations feels right to me. When situations are bleak and morale is down, I find myself adopting an optimistic outlook. This I have found immediately brightens the room because it comes from a genuine place. A perennial source of optimism for me is when I recall the worst moment in my life which is when I had to leave the startup that I had a lot of hopes for. It wasn’t pleasant at the time, but today I find that the most important experiences in my life. That has given me a great appreciation of bleak situations and the power of failure as a master, if you are a willing student.
Similarly I find pessimism appropriate when things look great. It keeps the team from getting carried away with itself. That doesn’t mean I don’t take out the time to celebrate with my teams when an important milestone has been achieved!
All in all, there are a variety of options available. At some point I would like to do another lunch and learn on decision making as I find the company growing. But for now, it was a great opportunity to come in front of a group of people and present my learnings. I hope you all find this a good read.
Written by Shawn Slavin | Oct 1