Mismatched Communication: Now What?


Here is one of my favorite activities to do in presentations on differing communication styles: I have participants pair up and I pass out red and blue glass stones. I tell the people who have red stones, “You are under a time constraint. You need to get the issue taken care of as quickly as possible. You are all business.” I tell the people who have blue stones, “Your number one goal is connection. You want to make sure the other person feels heard, understood, and valued as a human being. You don’t really care about the issue or resolution. You care about the person.” Then I give them an issue to resolve.

What a hoot! Sometimes, the pairs have matching stones. If two people with red stones get together, they usually get the issue resolved in about twenty seconds and then are sitting in their chairs, bored, waiting for the rest of the room to catch up. Of course, it doesn’t occur to them to continue talking once they’ve completed the activity. If both people have blue stones… well, I eventually have to end the activity before the issue gets resolved. But they both are very clearly attuned to the other person’s experience, and often have found out quite a bit about the other person’s job, family, pets, health, sleep habits, life history, etc.…

The real craziness happens when two people with mismatched stones have to resolve an issue. For those of us watching, it’s hysterical! For the ones doing the activity, it’s painful. The person on the time constraint gets more and more frustrated (“Would you just answer the question!!?”) while the caring person tries harder and harder to connect (“Wow, that questions is really important to you, isn’t it? Tell me about that…”).

The whole room is laughing before long, partly because the situation seems so absurd, yet also so relatable! You’ve had this experience, too, haven’t you? There are times when you just need your question answered or your issue resolved or your item purchased and it takes freaking forever because you’re dealing with Mr. I-Care-About-You. And then there are times when you don’t actually care about the issue, you just need someone to listen, but the other person swoops in with the “fix” and wonders why you aren’t grateful.

Sigh. It’s a good thing we are sometimes on the same page. Sometimes you and the other person both come to the interaction with the same colored stone, so to speak. But often, that’s not the case. What do you do when you’re mismatched? When you’re in “red” mode, but the other person is coming from “blue,” or vice versa? How do you deal? Here are two tips that will help those otherwise painful situations go more smoothly:


1) Tag the interaction as a “mismatch” and don’t let it get to you.

Don’t take it personally. The other person is not purposefully trying to waste your time; he’s just coming from “connection” mode. The other person is not trying to be rude; she’s just coming from “issue” mode. Don’t make up stories about their motives. Don’t make yourself a victim. Don’t make up “shoulds.”

(Side note: It’s a lot easier to notice and tag mismatches when you don’t go into situations with preconceived notions and stereotyped expectations. Stay open and present and observe the reality before you.)

Take the behavior as information. That’s all it is. “Jake is focused on the issue right now.” Or, “I think Jess is looking for connection at the moment.” Rarely does another person’s behavior have anything to do with you. They behave based on where they are in this moment. It’s not about you. So, don’t make it personal.


2) Adjust.

“Why should I be the one to adjust???” I can hear your complaining all the way from here, ha! Why doesn’t the OTHER person have to adapt to YOU? Well, in a perfect world, he or she would. In fact, in a perfect world, no one would have to adapt to anyone else because we’d all be on the same page all the time, right? (Though doesn’t that sound like a great foundation for a dystopian novel on conformity?) The fact is, you only have control over you, so if you want this mismatched interaction to have any chance of success, you need to modify your approach.

If the other person seems focused on the issue and isn’t interested in connection, get to the point. Resolving the issue quickly will meet their needs, and in turn build rapport. If the other person needs some personal attention before getting to the issue, give it to them. Take 45 seconds to smile, make eye contact, and chit-chat. It won’t kill you, I promise. And once you do that, you’ll have permission to turn the conversation to the issue.

The beautiful and frustrating thing about every person in the world is that they each are different than you. What a blessing! And a curse! Also, each person enters every interaction with you from a slightly different vantage point—not only from yours, but different from the vantage point they came from the last time you talked to them! There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to communication. Stay aware, give up your stories (which mostly come from your own negative self-talk anyway), and meet people where they are. You’ll create rapport, build morale, get things done, and resolve issues. Bonus: It also feels really good.


Change your communication, change your life.

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