We subconsciously adjust our communication styles to match the people we are around; shifting that to a conscious effort is a communication skill that improves interactions but can raise the fear of being phony. Understanding the communication tactic and being clear on our purpose helps us to match others’ styles without losing our own.
Consider this common conversation I have with clients:
Me: Perhaps you could adjust your speaking style to fit your audience, reflecting their style.
Client: That would be phony, putting on a act; I want to be my true self.
Me: Do you talk to your grandparents the same way you talk to your friends?
Client: Of course not.
Me: How do you change the way you speak for your grandparents as compared to your friends?
Client: Well, I show respect to my grandparents, I don’t curse, I say yes ma’am and yes sir. Around my friends I am much more casual. We finish each others’ sentences and say whatever is on our minds.
Me: So, which of those is your true self?
Client: Both are, I mean I love my grandparents and like to spend time with them, it is just different than being around my friends, that’s all.
Me: So, actually you are already adjusting your speaking style to fit your audience, switching how you speak to your grandparents and your friends. Now you can just apply this skill to your professional life, consciously adjusting how you speak based on the audience.
Mirroring and Code Switching
Many times, we are mirroring and code switching in our communication without being aware that is what we are doing. The two academic terms, mirroring and code switching, refer to our tendency to adjust the way we communicate depending on the people and the situation. Mirroring is matching another’s nonverbal style by displaying similar gestures and using the same vocal qualities, which activates a part of the brain that increases connection. The term code switching originally described bilinguals switching between languages and then expanded to include people switching dialects or styles within a language, depending on the context, in order to improve communication. There are many studies that show both the natural human propensity for mirroring and code switching and their respective communication benefits. Mirroring has been shown to facilitate collaboration and code switching to increase a sense of belonging. One entertaining article shares personal stories on the reasons we code switch. Understanding that matching our styles to others’ styles is natural for humans, we can see the intentional effort of adjusting styles as a maturation of that inherent skill.
In the client scenario I shared, the person had a very clear purpose for speaking differently to their grandparents — showing respect. Being clear on the purpose for adjusting our style (in addition to communicating in general) helps motivate us to make the effort and know how we can adjust. In more extreme cases, such as when a friend is in crisis, we are clear that our purpose is to be supportive and will match their serious demeanor and likely mirror their actions, such as sitting if they sit. In a work setting, the purpose may be less obvious, but often is about relationships – building trust, and earning or showing respect. It can also be about content; learning or sharing information requires open listening and a good connection on the part of the communicators.
As soon as we have identified our purpose, we are motivated to communicate in a manner that supports that purpose, including intentionally mirroring and code switching. That might look like leaning back in a chair when others lean back, or speaking more quickly if another’s pace is fast, or even adding a curse word if the others use profanity as a regular part of their speech. The caveat is that the range of style variation needs to fit within the scope of what feels comfortable and real for us. If we never talk fast and then try to speed up to match a New Yorker, we might feel phony or defeat our own purpose if we trip over our words. If we never curse and then drop an f-bomb because others are, we are likely to feel awkward and thereby hinder instead of increase connection. With the purpose of improving relationships and increasing mutual understanding, we can mirror and code switch within the realm of our own communication repertoire.
It is natural human tendency to adjust our communication according to the people with whom we are interacting. Learning to do that intentionally is a powerful skill. Consciously paying attention to the person(s) we are with, noticing their mood and communication style, and then adjusting our own style accordingly helps us be effective communicators able to fulfill our purpose. Understanding the phenomena and being clear on purpose helps us develop that skill while remaining genuine.