“Communicating in style” – Birgit Geiberger at UX Sofia

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At UX Sofia, Birgit Geiberger started her talk by quoting Paul Watzlawick’s observation that “One cannot not communicate.” As human beings, even our silence speaks volumes, and Birgit reminded us that 93% of what makes up communication between us as animals consists of non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions.

People have been trying to categorise human behaviour for centuries, as far back as Galen & Hippocrates and the “four temperaments” in the 400BCEs. The scheme she is most interested is the People styles or social styles developed by David Merrill in the 1960s.

This categorises people into four groups, and Birgit referred to them with some rather less academic and more accessible names: thinkers, relators, socialisers and directors. These categorisations aren’t, she explained, a way to understand what or how people are thinking, but are based on all the public manifestations of personality. The types are plotted on four quadrants of a graph, with the axes being indirect to direct, and open to guarded. The indirect styles approach things at a slower pace, whilst the open styles are more about the exchange of emotional information.

Social styles diagram

Very briefly, the relator needs to build relationships, the thinker likes to plan things very carefully, the socialiser is full of ideas, and the director is very result driven. Like all of these personality classifications, it doesn’t mean that somebody of “Type A” only ever behaves like a “Type A”, but it is a useful tool for describing their general communication style.

What I found interesting about Birgit’s talk is that it was much more than an explanation of a theory about how humans interact — she included some really practical examples of how you could use it to improve things in the workplace. One of the keys is to be able to identify which types of people are on your team.

Birgit explained that often tensions can arise because of a clash of styles. A typical exchange that can cause friction is between a software developer and a designer. Whilst the designer is trying to explain what needs to be built, the developer will be interrupting with questions like “how will this be achieved” or observations like “this interaction will be difficult and expensive to build.” These are all great questions that the designer will probably come to appreciate after a period of reflection, but what is at play here is that developers tend to be the thinker type, and designers tend to be the socialiser type. So the thinker’s methodical fact-driven approach is clashing with the socialiser being in the flow of ideas tumbling out. At that moment the thinker’s communication style comes across to the socialiser as a negative, blocking behaviour, when it isn’t — it is simply a verbal manifestation of how the thinker plans projects. A great clue that someone might be a ‘director’ type, she said, is if you notice that they have no personal effects whatsoever on their desk in the office.

Birgit said that you can use knowledge of these styles to help resolve conflict. First off, determine what styles are involved in the conflict. Then plan your conversation in advance, paying attention to the types of information and communication that will help put participants at ease. A director, for example, will find questions about what she got up to at the weekend a time-wasting prelude to the real conversation, whereas a relator will find a failure to inquire rude and brusque. Finally, Birgit said, don’t forget to evaluate how the process went after the conversation, in order to learn how you could use these communication styles even more effectively the next time.

Oh, and as an aside, Birgit showed a great slide that mapped several different types of people classification scheme onto each other. My Myers-Briggs personality type — INTP — mapped onto the ancient Greek philosopher’s category of “Melancholic”. Go figure.

You might also be interested in the notes I took of Birgit and Pete Boersma’s joint presentation on a similar theme at EuroIA Rome last year.


Next up I’ll have a blog post about a talk by Ina Ivanova and Dimiter Simov looking at design thinking.

This is one of a series of blog posts about UX Sofia.
Designing for Micromoments: Tiny Interactions with Big Payoffs” – Stephen P. Anderson
Communicating in style” – Birgit Geiberger
Design thinking vs user-centered design” – Ina Ivanova & Dimiter Simov at UX Sofia
Turning historic adversity into business advantage” – Eric Reiss

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