How communication styles impact collaboration

I love my mother but some conversations with her drives me crazy.  She needs to explain everything is in excruciating detail, even when I get it, or she provides me with such a minutia of detail that I lose sight of her point.  She can take 5 minutes what it takes me 15 seconds to convey.

The reason?  She and I have conflicting communication styles that require us to work hard to adjust for each others.

While that’s a personal example, variations in communication styles directly impact in the business world and on the ease of collaboration within a group.

There are four primary styles of communication.  Different folks have variable names for them but I playfully call the styles Airheads, Firebrands, Waterways, and Earthworks. Let’s explore how each style is conveyed and the stylistic impacts on social media and internal collaboration.



An Airhead communicator is someone who easily juggles ideas and many tend towards free-ranging thinking that can stimulate new thoughts in others.  They think zippity do da fast and express themselves with objectivity.  It’s that very objectivity that allows many of them to play devil’s advocate as they seek to fully explore ideas surrounding an issue.  These folks are also overflowing with left-brained logic.

You can identify Airheads via key phrases like “I think,” “what are your thoughts,” and variations of such in their conversation.  Airs also make a lot of tangents in their discussion as they jump around in conversation.  Other Airs will have no problemo following the jumps, will like it, but non-Airs find themselves itching to break the Airs’ pogo sticks.

At their worst, Airheads can fill the world with lots of inane chatter.  At their best, though, these folks can stimulate new systems of thought.

Airheads tend to gravitate to any communication media that will allow them to transfer ideas – or to be exposed to new ideas.  And they have a lot to say.

Thus, look to them to be avid talkers (in conversation, public speaking or both), writers, and readers.  Some Airheads will be undercover, though, so keep a look out for them.  For example, while my partner Cynthina thrives on having convos, she’d rather have her nails pulled with pliers than have to write.  However, she can do with software programming what I do with words.

In terms of social media, Twitter is a fabulous outlet for Airheads because they can easily follow multiple conversations at the same time.  And being such warp-speed thinkers, the fast pace of Twitter is also likely to be highly appealing to them.  Others, such as my Airhead self, love to use Twitter to share interesting newsy links with others.

Another great outlet for Airheads are any sort of user forum, especially ones where they can stir things up, learn, or share ideas.  These are folks who may make great moderators or community managers because they’ll have the most interest in pulling out the thoughts and ideas of a wide cross-section of participants.

In terms of internal collaboration, oh heavenly day, Airs will love it.  Lots of ideas to share and explore.  Lots of folks to work with and through.  Woo hoo!  These folks will actively eat up any collaborative medium – in person, online, phone.  They’ll thrive when they can be in cutting-edge collaborations.  Some Airheads will want to make one-on-one contact, though, while go for volume.  And some will definitely want in-person interaction while others will be happy onliners.



Are you talking about me?  ‘Cause, really you should.  So says the Firebrand communicator.  These folks are very interested in identity – mostly theirs.

How do you identify Firebrands?  It’s all in the me, one way or another.  Sure as shooting, whoever wrote "I've Got To Be Me" was a Firebrand.

At their worst, Fires are too Me-focused and can push people away because of it.  Another possible negative is a tendency to be impulsive (as in foot in mouth or insensitive), and sometimes lacking sufficient focus and objectivity.

At their best, though, these folks are entertaining, upbeat, and bubbly, making their banter interesting to others!  Many of these folks will also excel at witty repartee, which for the right audience ups the entertainment value.  Their thoughts are often original and visionary and they often speak from the heart.

Like Airheads, Fires can can also be fast thinkers, although they sometimes don't think things through quite enough.  Conversations between Fires and Airs can be quite lively too and they adore conversing with one another.

Great communication methods for Firebrands are those that involve showcasing personality or promoting (themselves, their company and products). 

Fires may also enjoy a medium like Twitter because of the opportunity to shine a light on themselves as well as the fast pace.  Facebook?  Also likely to be popular because then they can also easily post pictures of themselves.  Always a cheery Firebrand activity.

Bloggers will find personal anecdotes beneficial to punctuate their articles.

User discussions may or may not appeal to Fires.  It will all depend on the topic and how much opportunity they have for personal showcasing.  For those who like to participate, expect them to be influencers who will have the ability to attract others.  And like their name says, expect these folks to excel at initiating and igniting the conversation.

In terms of internal collaboration, hmmm, these folks will tend to work the best in leadership positions or those where they have outlets as an authoritative voice.  Like Airs, Fires will love to be on the cutting edge.



Waterway communicators are very concerned with the emotions and these folks are highly receptive.  They’re also deeeeeeep thinkers and capable of a high-level of focus.

You can identify the Waters by their emotionally-laced communiqués (often impacted by subconscious goings on).   They’ll often use phrases like “I feel,” “I believe,” “How do you feel,” and similar variations.  They will also tend to talk in terms of “hunches” and “gut instincts.”

At their worst, Waters can be so quiet that you literally have to pull information from them.  Additionally, they aren’t very adept at using logic in their arguments.  Don’t get me wrong, Waters have just as many smart people among them as Airs.  The Waters are just big with the right brained thinking while the Airs are big with the left.

And that’s their strength, even though they have a harder time finding outlets for such thinking in the corporate world.  Waters are highly intuitive – and are great for balancing the logic of Airs and the me-ness of the Fires.

And the reason why businesses should pay attention to Waters is because people don’t buy based on logic – they do it based on emotion (they may profess to using logic because no one wants to admit they make emotional buying decisions although advertisers are in-the-know).  Thus Waters are great tester outers of how your market may respond to the new ideas generated by the Airs and Fires.

Another strength of Waters is they make great listeners.  And their intuition makes they adept with reading body language and hearing unspoken messages.

In terms of social media, you may find that Waterways don’t thrive or enjoy online communities as much as Fires and Airs because too much of emotive and intuitive information is lost…especially for a medium like Twitter.  Online communities that allow them to post images may be a reasonable compromise, though.  Waterways are highly visual.  Conversely, you may find Waters fill an active role as lurkers.

These folks can make great customer service or tech support reps.  While they lack the visual cues they love, they still have access to vocal ones.  Their good listening skills, and ability to hear what’s not said, will help them help customers.  Of course, some Waters may too sensitive to deal with abrasive customers.

In terms of internal collaboration, Waters may not be as active in expressing themselves as their Fire and Air brethren.  Expect to see the Fires and Airs toss out beaucoup ideas (“Oh, oh, there’s this or that, and oh, oh, I’ve got it…”).  The Waters will tend to sit back and listen – absorbing and pondering – and before providing their insightful comments.

Alert, when Waters do elect to speak up, others (that would be the F&As) should shush.  Waters excel at finding gaps in ideas or lasering in on the motivations of others (which could be good for customer insights or uncovering political intrigue).



Earthworks are concerned with practical thought.  If they engage in abstract thought, it's with the intent of devising the means to apply it.  They’re very much bottom line folks.  And like their Waterworks brethren, Earthies are highly receptive communicators, although some can be quite active with the talking.

The bad news about Earthies is these….folks…are...slow…thinkers.  They also tend to need to have all the steps explained to them in excruciating detail (and I mean every single, solitary step).  Because of this need, Earthies will often drive F&As crazy who, because of their quick thinking, are and able to leapfrog through convos and explanations with happy glee.  Waters will completely understand Earthies thinking needs, though, and the formers’ deep-thinking tendencies compliment the latters’ slower thinking.

You can identify many Earthies because they tend towards bottom line thinking and ideas they can use (or that you can use).  And as a corollary to the above paragraph, when many of Earthies share their thoughts, it will be step-by-step, even if their listeners already get it and wished they’d just hurry up and move the discussion along.  Just like many geologic processes tend to move at glacial paces, Earthy communicators will not move before they’re ready.

However, don't confuse Earthies’ slow thinking with a lack of intelligence.  Rather, these are simply folks that need to take their time thinking through things – and that means they aren’t prone to rush decisions.  That’s their strength.

In the corporate world, while F&As gleefully toss out oodles of ideas, Earthies will seek to tie the ideas down, determine the practical applications, and select which to pursue based on hard dollar revenue estimates or cost savings.   Some Waters will be right there with the Earthies critically evaluating the opportunities.

In terms of social outlets, Earthies will favor very structured communication outlets and may struggle with spontaneous communications.

Twitter?  What are you kidding me?  It’s about as spontaneous as it comes.

However, any kind of social forum where Earthies have time to prepare and post will be more favorable to them.  For example, an Earthy could do well with an outlet like LinkedIn Q&A forum where they can (carefully) prepare thoughtful answers before spell-checking and posting.

In terms of internal collaboration, if the team consists of a high number of Airs or Fires, the latter will leave Earthies in the dust.  A team moderator will have to help the Earthies by tying the others down for a bit.


Putting it all together

Each communication style brings value to the corporate environment as a whole so a well-balanced company will want to have communicators of all styles.

And if you haven’t already sussed on to it, F&As tend to be highly compatible communicators as do W&Es, while the F&As often tend to be at odds to some degree with the W&Es.  Ideally, your company will have leaders who understand the different styles and can take initiatives to help each style be heard.

One reason I like online collaboration solutions is that they can act like equalizers.  The Airheads have lots of opportunities to share their ample ideas and explore them to their hearts content.  The Firebrands can get excited and passionate about the discussion and play key roles to help initiate and stimulate the conversation.  Waterworks can watch as threads unfold and unleash their intuition to see the underlying connections within and across threads.  And Earthworks have plenty of time to think through what they need to and prepare their rebuttals – and demand and set tangible expectations.

It’s win-win-win-win situation and a glorious thing.

Now dish.  What are your thoughts on communication styles?  My inquiring mind wants to know.