Storytellers and Prognosticators: Lessons in Communication Style

Every other Friday, my team holds a retrospective meeting. One issue that came up in our most recent retrospective was a particularly contentious user story estimation meeting that had occurred a few days prior. Voices were raised, people were interrupted mid-sentence, and sarcasm was liberally deployed. This was a specific isolated incident, and I am very proud of my team that we were able to quickly own, discuss and remedy the situation. We are a better team of communicators as a result.

After the retrospective, I thought about different communication styles, and I tried to come up with different personas for the different types of communicators on my team. So far, I've broken the communication styles down into these general personas:

Storytellers love to talk about the past. Their goal is to remind everyone that experience is the best teacher. They are the archive of a team's experiences, reminding everyone of past obstacles and past triumphs. By trying to couch everything in terms of previously encountered situations, storytellers sometimes have trouble recognizing changed circumstances. You can recognize a storyteller by phrases like "Do you remember when..." and "Last time this happened..."

Prognosticators are in some ways the opposite of storytellers. They love to talk about likely outcomes and visions of the future. Their ideas tend to be expressed as innovative approaches to problems and as warnings about potential pitfalls. Prognosticators can sometimes derail a conversation by making predictions based on erroneous assumptions. They can be recognized by phrases like "Something we need to watch out for..." and "It's possible that..."

Prognosticators and storytellers tend to feed off each other, with the latter talking about how a current situation is similar to the past, and the former talking about how the current situation is different. When they get on a roll together, it may be difficult for the other personas to break into the conversation. Both must be careful to not take the conversation off tangents and drive it away from productive outcomes.

Inquisitors communicate by asking questions (the Socratic method.) Their strength is getting others to think about what they are saying by asking for clarification, and by steering the tone and direction of the conversation to discover new possibilities. Inquisitors are excellent at keeping storytellers and prognosticators on track. It is important that inquisitors remember to contribute knowledge instead of always asking questions to which they already know the answers, otherwise they risk looking condescending. Inquisitors can be recognized by phrases like "What if..." and "What did you mean by..." and "Have you considered..."

Evaluators are good listeners. Unlike the other personas, which tend to drive conversations, evaluators do not speak often, and when they do, they tend to be soft-spoken. Evaluators are good at judging ideas objectively and combining multiple points of view into one cohesive vision. It is important that evaluators do not let themselves get talked over, and that they do not completely hold back from contributing; inquisitors can help draw an evaluator into the conversation. Evaluators can be recognized by phrases like "That's an interesting thought..." and "I was thinking about..."

Most people are more comfortable in one, or a combination of two, personas. I call this their base communicator. These are not discrete communication styles. Elements of any one may be combined with elements of another, and no person is purely one persona or another. From day to day, even within the course of a single conversation, people flow in and out of these different personas.

In conversation, especially in larger groups, it is important to recognize which persona is speaking. Remember that familiarity breeds complacency! As team cohesion grows, you will soon learn to recognize each team member's base communicator, and when that happens it is even more important to pay attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it. Just because you know someone's general communication style, you cannot assume that they will always communicate that way in every circumstance.

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