Chances are, when your CEO criticizes the strategic plan you drafted, you’re instantly transported back to fifth grade. That’s when a teacher might have dismissed that project you struggled to complete. You knew in your heart it might not have been the finest, but the critical or disrespectful tone made you feel that you just weren’t good enough as a person. The teacher didn’t explain why your work fell short. And if criticism was offered, you heard only disapproval.
Now, your CEO is criticizing your work. Her intentions are probably good (she’s probably talking to you the way she’s been spoken to by her bosses in the past). But you’re feeling the criticism deeply, and your confidence is draining away. Talk about misaligned communication.
Communication Starts at Home
From our families, and later interactions at school or university, on the basketball team, at our first job, with our neighbors, and from mass media, we develop frames that shape the way we see and react to the world. It’s within our families or our grade-school interactions that we develop patterns of intrapersonal communication — the conversations we have with ourselves — and the way we communicate with others. It drives how we interpret the world and how the world interprets us. Like it or not, we carry these patterns into our workplaces. Understanding how those childhood experiences have molded the way we interact can help us figure out how to communicate more effectively in a variety of professional and personal situations.
The people we encounter are similarly shaped by their families, their first job, their neighbors and the media. To cross the divides that these different frames create means we must learn to recognize and then adapt to different world views, especially when we don’t have power or control over a given situation. Our ability to communicate is the bridge that helps us adapt.
Four Family Communication Patterns
Communication researchers Ascan Koerner at the University of Wisconsin and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick at the University of South Carolina have spent years looking at family communication patterns and how they shape behavior and discourse. In Family Communication Patterns Theory: A Social Cognitive Approach,” they write how they built on earlier research to identify four main familial approaches to communication, conflict and decision-making.
Consensual families shape their communication by navigating a tension to maintain a family hierarchy while encouraging open and free conversations. They value conversation but conflict is viewed as negative. Someone from a consensual family might veto your hiring decision but will spend 30 minutes explaining why he is doing so. He gives you a lot of information hoping that it will avoid conflict.
Pluralistic families encourage children to make their own decisions and foster an environment of free and open communication. Parents in these families do not feel they have to control or agree with what their children decide to do. A leader raised with this type of pattern will encourage subordinates and colleagues to find their own answers. If you come to this leader with a problem, her response might likely be,” what do you think you should do?”
Protective families are characterized by authority and control that rests entirely with the parents. Communication is about obedience, so there is little explanation of decisions. Children learn not to question. In this type of family, conforming is valued. People raised in this pattern often have stunted communications skills when it comes to conflict. Leaders from protective families will share information sparingly. If challenge, they will shut the challenger down without listening to their perspective.
Laissez-faire families experience little conversation and have little interest in actively developing children’s skills in decision-making. These families operate on the belief that everyone should make their own decisions, but there is little discussion or sharing. People raised in this environment rarely experience conflict; they are never in opposition with authority because there is no authority. A leader raised in this environment might get frustrated by a subordinate who keeps coming to them with questions. This leader doesn’t want to discuss and just wants the subordinate to make their decision.
What’s Your Pattern?
When you come from a different family communication pattern than your boss, clients or colleagues, you can have communications crashes that lead to misunderstandings, toxic work environments and missed opportunity. Recognizing the different approaches that have shaped you and those who matter most to your success can help you prevent these collisions.
Which family pattern best describes you? In what family communication pattern are you most comfortable? What family pattern do you think your boss or colleagues experienced?
This post is excerpted from the book Prism of Value ®: Connect, Convince and Influence When It Matters Most.