As a trainer I take a keen professional interest in what other people – our competitors – are offering. It’s a crowded market, and when the economy shrinks, and budgets are squeezed, training is often the first thing to be cut (rightly or wrongly) which means that the competition is even fiercer. Naturally, some of the advice we give in our workshops is likely to be duplicated by other trainers. I surely can’t be the first person that’s ever said “stop looking at the slides” and “speak up”. But there is one area where we take an entirely opposite approach from most of our competitors and colleagues.

To explain the difference, and why I’ve chosen the side of the fence that I have, I first want to talk briefly about cholera. On reading Steven Johnson’s literate, detailed, compassionate and utterly absorbing book The Ghost Map which detailed the cholera outbreak which swept through London in 1854, one point in particular struck me. The prevailing theory at the time was the miasma theory of disease which held that ailments such as cholera were carried by bad smells – not too far off the truth. This did not explain however why sewer workers were no more likely to contract cholera than their more refined brethren. (Today we know that it is necessary to drink cholera-infected water in order to contract the disease; just sloshing about it in isn’t enough.) This apparent contradiction was explained by comparing the hardy nature of the working class stock and the more fragile build of the society ladies and gentlemen who suffered so appallingly.

Instrumental in bringing the epidemic to an end was John Snow, who identified the Broad Street water pump as the source of the infection and who removed the handle from it to prevent access. How was it that Snow was able to see past the prevailing miasma theory? One reason is that his researches into anaesthesia had already shown him a significant finding which called miasma theory gravely into question. When calculating the correct dosage of ether or chloroform to render a patient insensible prior to an operation (while making sure that they could be revived again afterwards), he discovered that taking class into account was no help at all. Far from people’s susceptibility being arranged on a spectrum from the hardiest sewer worker to the most delicate dandy, people were all basically the same. This was a vital clue that miasma theory was incorrect and that the people who succumbed to cholera had something else in common – which turned out to be where they got their water from.

Now let’s leave John Snow and look at some basic ideas around communications training. Good communicators have to take a few different things into account. If I am to communicate something to you, then I have to make sure that I fully understand my subject matter and have made some good clear choices about what to include, what to leave out and what order to arrange my material in. This should be informed by who my audience is, since different audiences will have different preferences, be looking for different things, or have pre-existing knowledge in different amounts. And I must also take myself into account – I must play to my strengths and I must communicate in a way which is congruent with my natural style and also any expectations that my audience might have of me.

So far, so basic. And I agree that all of the foregoing are important elements to bear in mind. However, what strikes me about a lot of the training that I see is that the second element is given an enormous about of weight.  Here’s a quotation from a website offering communications training

If communication is so common, why does it miss its mark so often? There are a number of reasons, but much of the time it’s because we are different in how we communicate, and that difference can create misunderstanding. For example, one person may be explaining something in great detail to a person who has difficulty processing detail. The first person is sure that he is giving everything that is needed to understand; however, the second person is so lost half-way through the conversation that he simply tunes out. Not wanting to appear “stupid,” the second person nods in agreement, then walks away wondering what transpired.

Their solution to this problem is to go on a course which will identify your and your colleagues’ and clients’ communication styles. Here’s another example.

You can easily find out about the individual’s level of receptiveness by noticing how much he speaks about himself. Persons who are veritably receptive prefer to share information and are comfortable with emotions. They normally talk with expressions and mix up soon with new people. On the other hand, there are individuals who are kind of reserved. These people do not prefer to show their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to others. Regarding straightforwardness, you can find out in which category a person falls by the way he talks, how willing he is to take chances, and what kind of mannerisms he possesses. Straightforward people prefer to take the initiative and charge of situations, whereas those who are indirect choose to stay away from risks, and value security and heedful planning.

Many of these offerings bring with them more or less complicated models which break down the various modes of communication into three, four, seven, nine, a dozen or more communication styles. Are you Passive, Assertive or Aggressive? Are you Reserved, Open, Direct or Indirect? Are you Expresser, Driver, Relater or Analyser? Knowing our own preferred communications style and deducing other peoples’ can help us to select a way of communicating which is going to make the job easier and the communicating more effective. It’s all about flexibility.

I hope these types of communicators have given you an idea of the different communication styles in the workplace. If you want to be an effective communicator, you need to adjust your talk according to the type of person you are talking to.

Of course, first you have to pick which of the many and mutually-contradictory models you are going to subscribe to. But as you keep looking, you discover that it isn’t just communication styles. People also have learning styles (often, but not always, Visual, Auditory, Reading or Kinaesthetic). And they certainly have personality types (these often based on Jungian archetypes, most notably of all Myers-Briggs).

Well, just what’s so damn wrong about that? Sure, I’m a different personality from my sister and she’s different from the next-door neighbour. I want to watch snooker, she wants to watch Desperate Housewife and the next-door neighbour has a weird obsession with mangoes. We might very well take in information more readily in different forms.

This is all indeed true. I’m not saying that people don’t differ. I’m not even saying that people don’t differ in profound and predictable ways (as our recent work with women is demonstrating). But I do question the value of exercises like Myers-Briggs. It’s clear to me why Myers-Briggs is popular with trainers. Explaining how Myers-Briggs works (or whichever version of it you happen to have come across) takes quite a long time and makes the trainer seem very clever; then getting people assessed takes even longer and gets everybody involved; finally at the end, everyone’s learned something about themselves which they can in theory use to improve their ability to work and communicate as a team. None of which is itself a reason to damn the enterprise, but what is it that people are supposedly learning?

Here’s a passage which purports to describe a certain personality type.

You bring things to fruition by getting things done, and getting them done now! You are very action-oriented, dealing with whatever tasks the current situation presents. You often spur others into action as well. You make use of your experience and utilise tools or processes of which you already have knowledge. You try to have an immediate impact on things, injecting a sense of urgency, and aiming to achieve clear goals and tangible results.

And here’s another, describing a different type. Both passages have been extracted from longer works, and I’ve smoothed out the language here-and-there.

You mutate from feeling to feeling, plan to plan, vision to vision. This makes you highly creative or gifted at working with other people and sometimes just unpredictable. You are most likely to motivate yourself to do something by saying you will never do it again. You are also very skilled in a helping capacity, naturally comfortable with service. Yet you easily evoke the help of others by readily expressing vulnerability.

Compare the (ha!) styles of both. What differences do you notice, and what similarities?

The first is from the Myers-Briggs description of the ESTP personality type. The second is from an astrology website and describes Pisces. This is my first problem with Myers-Briggs and all the others. Since the dark ages, people have offered ways in which to categorise and sort people based on all kinds of things. In the west, historically people have given credence to the concept that the stars in the sky at the moment of your birth will determine your personality. In Japan, they prefer to be guided by blood types. In training companies, it’s Myers-Briggs. It’s no surprise to me, for example, that people don’t always come out with the same Myers-Briggs “type” when the test is repeated.

But even if it could be shown that Myers-Briggs (and the other applications and flavours of this basic idea) do reliably and repeatably measure something which is present in the real world, does that mean that all we need to do to become expert communicators is to adopt the communication style of those we wish to communicate to? Does it mean we should strive to do this at all, even if all we want to do is to improve?

Like John Snow’s working class oiks and upper crust toffs, all equally susceptible to ether, I would argue that in the majority of cases, the similarities are more important than the differences. Sure, people differ, but people are also alike. Learning how to tell clear, simple stories; to use visual language; to create a context and then cite examples; to speak slowly and with appropriate emphasis; to adopt a relaxed and comfortable manner which still makes you appear authoritative – these are qualities which will help anybody communicate to anybody else.

I don’t get to spend an hour or more walking my trainees through a personality test, nor can I give them detailed assessments about their own personal learning/communication/personality styles. But I can give them sound practical advice which means they can forget about developing a new communications style for every audience and instead just focus on developing the best communications style for them.

Which is why Myers-Briggs reminds me of cholera.