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Understanding Individual Communication Styles in Counseling

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Published in The Family Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, January 2011

Understanding Individual Communication Styles in Counseling

Robert V. Keteyian

Robert V. Keteyian, M.Ed., LCPC Elias & Keteyian, Inc. Counselors to Families and Businesses 122 Main St., Ellsworth, ME 04605 207-667-7735

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Abstract Focusing on individual communication styles can guide interventions, provide natural validation, and enhance creativity in the counseling relationship. The author has developed a framework for defining individual communication style components, drawing on learning style theory and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. By using the natural language of the client, problem solving is better connected to client strengths.

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Understanding Individual Communication Styles in Counseling

Communication Skills In Counseling To build successful working relationships with our clients, we need good communication. You could say that communication is the life blood of counseling. Other factors are important in developing the relationship, of course, but communication is the vehicle, and directly and indirectly, we often teach communication skills: We model positive communication practices and, at times, coach clients about how to handle sensitive discussions with important people in their lives. Numerous good books and articles on the subject of developing good communication skills are available, and most of us have read many of them and recommend them to those we see. We also stress the importance of I statements, reflective listening, not interruptingall rules that may be common sense but are not always easy to practice.

Why Communication Styles Matter? Missing from the discussion about interpersonal communication, though, is a more thorough understanding of individual styles in the communication process. Mars and Venus (Gray, 1992), among others have taught us about male/female differences in processing information and communication, and there are many paradigms to help us better understand the various roles we play as communicators in different types of relationships. But beneath the surface are inherent individual differences that drive communicationboth how we listen and how we express ourselves. Mahaffey

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(Mahaffey, 2010) notes numerous categories where individual differences can cause miscommunication and drive conflict.

The question I asked during the mid 1980s was this: How are learning styles reflected in interpersonal communication? As a former teacher I was familiar with the visual-auditory-kinesthetic learning styles paradigm and Howard Gardners theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983). Using aspects of both of these, Ive developed a framework for examining individual communication styles that includes seven communication components present and active in any verbal exchange. How these configure forms the foundation of an individuals communication style. Let me be clear that I have not defined seven communication styles. There are as many communication styles as there are individuals. Each of us has our own communication style comprised of these seven, uniquely synchronized components. Just as with learning styles, it is important not to label yourselfyou are not, for example, an auditory learner. Rather you are one who has a strong auditory component to your learning style. There are many ingredients active with the auditory strength.

The seven communication components are: Linguistic (words) Logical (reasoning) Visual-Spatial (images/pictures) Auditory (sound) Kinesthetic (experiencing/feeling)

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Interpersonal (people oriented) Intrapersonal (self-knowledge)

When you converse you exchange words with others (linguistic). You also visualize images and symbols (visual-spatial) and are aware of the sound, cadence, timbre, and rhythm of the other voices (auditory). You take in the posture, gestures, and facial expressions of the participants (kinesthetic) and the reasoned, common sense flow of coherent information necessary for things to make sense (logical). Within a conversation, too, you count on rapport, connectedness, and empathy for emotional connection (interpersonal) as well as your own ability to go inward and make sense of what you perceive based on your own previous experiences (intrapersonal).

The Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Components

It is best to get oriented to this model by first discussing the interpersonal and intrapersonal components. Do you tend to think out loud (interpersonal) or is your tendency to think things through internally (intrapersonal) before discussing them? This gets to the heart of the difference between these two components. Of course, we think both internally and externally, but usually we have a tendency. Heres an example to help illustrate the point:

Sarah: Did you see the notice about a meeting at the school on Thursday night? The school is asking for ideas about funding the spring concert. We missed the concert last

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year when we were at your mothers. The kids understood, but I felt terrible. They can stay alone for the two hours wed be at the meeting, although Im not really sure the meeting is necessary. What do you think, Willy? How do you feel about it?

Willy: How do I feel about whatmissing the concert last year? Calling a meeting? Leaving the kids alone for two hours? I read the notice but I havent thought about any of this, Sarah.

Sarah: Why cant you just tell me what you think about it? What do you want to do?

Willy: Do about what?

They reach an impasse and whether or not they decide to go to the meeting, they are both slightly annoyed. Willy thinks internally. Sarah thinks out loud. At times, like this, their styles clash and neither feels understood or respected. Sarah weaves together thoughts, feelings, memories, and questions. She wants to interact to sort them out. The engagement helps her connect emotionally so she understands her thoughts and feelings and issues. Willy, on the other hand, usually needs to mull ideas over, sift them through his internal experience to understand them. Then he makes a decision or identifies how he feels. He feels more emotionally connected when he can offer clear communication. Both want the connection, but to get there Willy needs space, Sarah needs engagement. This difference is common in couples and is easily misunderstood and often seen as a typical male/female difference, but my wife and I are opposites on this, and Ive seen

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many other couples who dont fit the stereotype either. In our example above, Sarah thinks Willy is controlling, obstinate, and unwilling to talk with her. Willy thinks Sarah is wacky, undisciplined, and confused. But remember Sarah needs engagement and Willy needs space. When we dont account adequately for style we make assumptions about one another. This is when style differences drive conflict. Addressing the style differences allows for the real issues to sift out. As counselors we too can make assumptions about our clients mental health without accounting for their communication style. If intrapersonally driven clients are quiet and reserved in sessions and need time and space to mull things over, do we allow for that? Or do we believe they should be able to speak more spontaneously with us about their thoughts and feelings? Do we believe it is a trust issue or problem with authority? Conversely, if a client has good linguistic facility and can think out loud about a range of emotions, do we believe they are in touch with their feelings, or at a higher level of emotional maturity than someone who is more quiet and internal?

The Linguistic Component

People who think in words have a strong linguistic component to their communication style. Using words carefully, defining concepts specifically, and thinking about language are hallmarks of the linguistically driven. They recognize that words are powerful and important, but those with this strength must also be aware of the shadow side. Any strength has the potential of creating problems. If you become so fixed on the meaning of words and dont allow for non-verbal components, the linguistic risks

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becoming oppressive. Thats not what that word means. Why would say that? can derail communication by expecting others to be as word sensitive as you are. And it shifts the focus away from the issue/topic.

The Logical Component

Individuals who rely on reasoning as their primary guide in thinking and communicating have a strong logical component to their communication style. They like forming hypotheses, enumerating possibilities, and understanding the sequence of experience. To them, concepts need to make sense based on what we know to be true. The extreme of this is a Spock-like tendency that doesnt accept another persons truths and logic and the recognition that our emotions dont follow a typical logical (linear) course.

The Visual-Spatial Component

We all haveand usemental images and pictures. Those with a strong visualspatial component think primarily this way. They dont think in words and sentences, they see shapes and scenes. Often it is difficult for them to put word captions on the pictures to adequately explain and share what they see and experience. The fluid nature to relationships in the visual-spatial realm can defy descriptions, which also makes communicating concepts difficult. Sometimes visually oriented individuals seem spacey, despite their depth of understanding.

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The Kinesthetic Component

The kinesthetic component is the most difficult to describe because it is grounded in experienceexperiencing something to know it. The kinesthetic component involves physical gestures and postures that communicate non-verbally. The physical/emotional experience of being in communication with someone is part of the kinesthetic realm. It can be like a bubble where you can absorb the experience and emotion is palpable. The danger, of course, is becoming too absorbent of the others emotions, where boundaries are confusing and complicated. Mental health professionals who have a high degree of empathy are at risk of this type of boundary confusion

The Auditory Component

The auditory component relies on how a conversation sounds, the sensory experience of pitch, timbre, and rhythm (which is also kinesthetic). This component is finely attuned to tone of voice and what gets communicated between the spaces of soundthe vibrationsa sensitivity that can be very rich but also in the extreme risks overuse. For example, an auditory sensitive person needs to be mindful of perceiving too much (placing too much emphasis on) from a monotone voice or the emphasis someone else places on some words. Interpretations can easily be incorrect.

Communication Guide and Summary

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The communication guide below is a summary of each component, the key elements involved and the potential problems that often occur with a strength being out of balance.

COMPONENT Linguistic

ELEMENTS words, stories, letters defining terms developing concepts through words logical progression of ideas validating importance of sequence clear definition of problems and goals describe or present a picture, image, or metaphor enough time to describe (unfold) the image or picture inter-relatedness of parts to whole experiential involvement understanding the feelings involved engaging in activity while talking

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS invalidating non-verbal reality too fixed on defining words & concepts (losing essence of meaning) not giving others enough space discounting emotional process (focusing too much on content) derailed by feedback in the middle of sequential process not enough interaction (too much monologue) uncomfortable translating pictures or images into words diffuse or impressionistic (appears spacey) difficulty defining boundaries hard to relate without experiencing feelings can obscure content can become overwhelmed by absorbing anothers energy infer wrong intent from tone of voice not taking content at face value





how it sounds influences receptivity importance of rhythm, tone, and volume use music to convey idea or feeling in-depth conversation sounding board to think out loud continuity: achieving understanding over time



time and space for self clarity of intentions, needs, and feelings choices; not directives

high frustration without enough feedback verbalizing more than what is intended expecting too much involvement from others hard to give immediate feedback absorbed in own process overwhelmed by possibilities wont offer or accept anything because of belief it wont help

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Configuring Components

For the sake of discussion Ive separated each component to better understand how they manifest. However, as noted above in the auditory section, the components do not fall neatly into one category. We are whole human beings and our experience with the components combines and configures differently. Remember all seven components are a part of our communication experience. That said, most people zero in on three (or four) that resonate soundly. As you begin to see your strengths, you also notice your relative weaknesses. Certainly it is possible to develop areas you rely on less, but it takes conscious effort and intention. The obvious areas of strength that you discover drive your communication experience. As you develop more awareness in observing those strengths, you will naturally develop more patience in listening to others, asking more thoughtful questions and communicating a greater desire to achieve understanding.

The Communication Components Inventory at the end of this article (appendix) helps flesh out the nuances of each component and gives numerous touchstones for easier identification. Be careful not to use the inventory as a definitive tool. It is meant to stimulate awareness, give cues and clues to aid the discovery process. This is a fluid model and is not meant to stereotype or pigeonhole our human experience. The goal is to help people see their ordinary behavior in the light of how it affects their communication experience.

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How Does This Effect Counseling?

Whenever we achieve greater understanding of ourselves, our clients benefit because we have a way of carrying that understanding and clarity through our presence it informs our work. When we fully understand the individual components that make up our communication style (how a pie chart depiction would look, for example) we more easily recognize how it will be different for each client we see and are more likely to make fewer assumptions about others. This validates clients because it tunes into their natural language and it allows us to use interventions that are more individually focused. Basing our interventions on the inherent strengths of our clients is common sense. However, we also employ our clinical knowledge, our experience, creativity, and intuition. With the communication styles lens as another tool we expand options and open new avenues of creativity. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss specific interventions, let me offer basic ideas for incorporating this perspective and bringing focus to each component in the counseling setting:

Intrapersonal Lets think about this some more and make sure we continue talking about it. Lets see if we can understand better what your intentions are. I know getting to the bottom of this is important, but it does take time to clarify everything thoroughly. (Balance) Who else might be helpful to share this with?

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Interpersonal How does this affect your relational world? Tell me what it is like for you being in this situation. If we put other peoples feelings aside, how would this change the situation for you? (Balance) Do you know, yet, what is most important to you?

Linguistic What does (fill in the blank) mean to you? Is there a key phrase that would help summarize this for you? Is there another way of stating this point? (Balance) When you picture the situation, does anything stand else stand out?

Logical Is there a hierarchy of needs (or issues) in you mind? What makes sense and doesnt make sense to you yet? On a scale of 110, how do you . . .? (Balance) What is it like for you being in this situation?

Visual-Spatial What does the situation look like to you? Is there an image that best encapsulates this for you?

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What do all the parts look like? How are they arranged? (Balance) Can you tell a brief story that illuminates whats happening?

Kinesthetic Lets see if we can role play this together. Lets do some relaxation and breathing to get centered in the body. Where are you feeling this struggle in your body? (Balance) Is there an image or caption that expresses what its like for you being in this situation?

Auditory Are you hearing something that is dissonant to you? Is there something that is important for you to hear? It sounds as if you are saying _____? Do I understand correctly? (Balance) What can you do or ask that would help you feel more comfortable?


There is nothing new in the questions, issues or suggestions highlighted in each component area above. What is new is the opportunity to tailor our interventions to the natural language of the client based on their personal, inherent strengths. The focus on individual communication styles gives us another tool to work with in counseling. It also creates opportunities to be naturally validating and creative. The quality of the working

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relationship we develop with our clients is directly related to the success of the counseling experience. When we are tuned into the natural language of the client we enhance this opportunity.

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References Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books. Gray, J. (1992). Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. New York, NY: Harper Collins Mahaffey, B. (2010). Couples counseling directive technique: a (mis)communication model to promote insight, catharsis, disclosure, and problem resolution. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 18, 45-49/

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Appendix Communication Component Inventory

The best way to approach this inventory is to take a first pass through the items in each sectionjust go through them easily, casually, but seriously asking yourself, Is this me? or Is this mostly true about me? Skip any item youre uncertain about. How you make notes doesnt matter. Writing yes or no, checking those that apply to you and leaving blank those that dont, and using colored markers with your own system of noting preferences or likenesses (i.e., red for the strongest preferences, blue for secondary strength, green for least in each section) are three possibilities. Other approaches include numbering the items under each component 15, strongest to least, and using personal symbols (i.e., stars and facial expressions). This is your inventory, so use a system that is most clear to you. Keep in mind that the purpose of the inventory is to help you develop a relationship to each of the seven components and become increasingly familiar with your strengths and relative weaknesses. This is not a labeling exercise. In other words, you are not an auditory person or a spatial person. You may, however, have a strong auditory component to your communication style that combines nicely with your interpersonal and linguistic components. These three elements may be the bedrock of your style that the other components rest onand yes, they are all active simultaneously in every communication experience.

Communication Component Inventory

Interpersonal _____ Its important for me to get my thoughts and feelings out in the open. _____ I need to think out loud and discuss the same issue with several people. _____ I enjoy re-visiting conversations with the same person. _____ I prefer working with others on projects and goals. _____ Others seek me out for counsel or advice. _____ When I have a problem, talking things out is necessary and effective. _____ I am good at drawing ideas together when working with others.

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_____ I need a lot of feedback from others. _____ I am intrigued by emotional dynamics in interpersonal relationships. Intrapersonal _____ I prefer to think things through before engaging in meaningful discussion. _____ I need a lot of time to reflect and/or meditate. _____ Learning about myself is central to my understanding of others. _____ I have a clear understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. _____ Explaining my inner process often seems irrelevant. _____ To achieve clarity, I first need to be aware of my feelings, intentions, motivations, and goals. _____ I plan thoughtfully and set goals for myself. _____ My inner world naturally connects me to a universal perspective. _____ I have a good sense of self-direction and think independently.

Linguistic _____ I like to use words. _____ I pay careful attention to the meaning of words. _____ I often refer to something Ive read when talking to others. _____ Writing letters, stories, essays, etc., is an effective form of communication for me. _____ I enjoy puns, plays on words, or other word games. _____ I generally prefer reading a well written story to seeing it dramatized. _____ I hear words in my head before speaking or writing them. _____ I enjoy analyzing the use of language. _____ I like explaining, teaching, or persuading others.

Logical _____ I reason things through step-by-step when thinking and talking. _____ I am intrigued by analyzing and problem solving. _____ I prefer to follow a train of thought through to its logical conclusion without interruption. _____ I like to find rational explanations for almost everything. _____ I can think structurally in a way that cannot easily be translated into words. _____ I can understand something if I can accurately quantify it. _____ My understanding is often obscured by other peoples feelings. _____ I tend to look for patterns, relationships, and connections in understanding. _____ I like to set up what if . . . experiments and play devils advocate.

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Visual-Spatial _____ I easily perceive clear visual images when talking or listening. _____ Meaning is never fixedit moves and evolves over time. _____ I remember things pictorially or symbolically. _____ Color communicates a lot to me. _____ I can see things from different angles when I hear a description. _____ I can easily conceptualize the relationship between objects. _____ Expressing in words the complexity of the visual images and relationships I perceive is difficult. _____ I may seem spacey to others when Im trying to explain something. _____ I often use metaphor to explain something to others.

Kinesthetic _____ Knowing registers as sensation in my body. _____ Demonstrations really help me understand and express myself. _____ I often fiddle with something or gesture while talking and listening. _____ My sensory experience is very strong. _____ I connect to others by demonstrating my feelings. _____ Words alone are risky for me in communication. _____ I need to physically experience things to understand them. _____ I sense others feelings and easily absorb their energy. _____ Physical movement helps me process information.

Auditory _____ I really notice tone of voice when someone is speaking. _____ When Im alone, I often hum, sing, or whistle. _____ I can tell how someone feels by the sound of their voice. _____ Music helps me think things through. _____ I am acutely aware of everyday sounds, like the clink of a glass or the whoosh of a closing door. _____ Familiar sounds, songs, jingles, etc. often stimulate my memory. _____ Speaking out loud to myself helps bring greater clarity. _____ I quietly repeat words and numbers to help me remember. _____ I have a strong internal sense of rhythm.