Directing versus Informing: The Dual-Language Quagmire

Successful communication hinges on the ability to meet in the middle

Back Web Only Jun 15, 2015 By Tania Fowler

Scenario: You open the refrigerator to find a near-empty milk carton. What would you tell your partner or roommate? Whether you would say, “Get milk when you go out,” or something more like, “Hey, we’re out of milk,” can tell you a lot about your communication style.

As a business coach, one of the workshops I offer is called Interaction Styles. An interaction style is an innate communication pattern that helps us communicate in our lives and at work. There are four basic interactions styles, but because there are 7.5 billion people on the planet, you can imagine there is quite a bit of variation, and yet everyone exhibits one primary pattern.

Learning how to identify interaction styles opens us up to an objective understanding of our peers. We can judge less if we understand that not everyone communicates in the same way we do (like the ever present “be like me” bias). Instead, if we embrace these differences we can build stronger communication. Of all the  information offered at these workshops, there is one juicy tidbit that seems to connect with just about everyone: the significant differences between directing and informing language. And these language preferences are pretty simple to identify.

Directing versus Informing Language:

People who primarily use directing language are time and task focused; communication is merely a tool to get stuff done.. Directors like to provide structure,  are fairly straightforward with people and are generally more comfortable telling people what to do (asking and urging too). Directors are often less comfortable with simply offering information. Non-verbally, they are forward moving and have a more definitive way of speaking.  

Contrast that with the informing language folks who are driven to motivate people and are process focused. Informers naturally evoke, draw forth, inspire and seek input. Because of that, they typically inform, inquire, explain and describe when looking to inspire action from others. Informers are very comfortable offering information and are less comfortable telling people what to do. They look for buy-in, for those around them to want to act. Non-verbally, they are more open, flowing and engaged.

The Point Where Two Language Styles Collide:

At work and in life, these language differences can get people into trouble and create negative feelings among colleagues. Let’s look at this dichotomy in action: A report is due Thursday for an important meeting. The directing boss says, “Get me that report by Thursday at 1 p.m.”  The informing boss says, “We have a meeting on Thursday and that report would yield important information.” See the problem?  

People who use informing language themselves would likely — but not always — hear the direction in their boss’ informing language. But people who use directing language would have no idea that the informing boss was actually giving them a task. They didn’t hear a directive, they only heard information about a meeting on Thursday and a report being important. A directing boss, on the other hand, routinely gives an informer terse directions and can leave that person feeling barked at and oppressed.

Directors are often impatient with an emerging process and can find themselves surprised when people resist being told what to do. They can become frustrated by the lack of a clear position and can be seen as bossy. Informing people, on the other hand, are more patient with an emerging process but are often surprised when the information they give is not acted upon. They can get offended at being told what to do and can seem indecisive.

This communication difference shows up on teams all the time. In fact, I just received a call about this from a director who called an informer regarding a meeting he was running late for. The director asked, “Should I still come?” The informer responded: “The meeting is still going on, and we are here.” The director told me he hung up frustrated; he had asked for a direction and was given a bunch of information. Another client of mine with a directing preference likes to bark orders, which often leaves her more informing staff miffed.

How to Get Language Styles to Cooperate:

The solution is pretty simple: Be aware of your natural style. If you lean toward directing language, speak the extra few words needed to soften the direction. If you’re more inclined to use informing language, expand the information into some type of clear direction. Both types can come to the middle and say something like, “We are having an important meeting on Thursday so I will need that report no later than 1 p.m. that day, please. Will that be a problem? Thanks so much.” A few extra words can buy so much more clarity and prevent needless drama.

Once you become familiar with these language preferences, you too can spot them in action with the people in your life. Practice with those closest to you, pay attention to their innate preferences. It is pretty fun once you hear them in action. Like a detective, you just figured something out that few people know about. You can learn more in An Introduction to Interaction Styles by Linda V. Berens.

Finally, your new language self-awareness will make you a better and more conscious communicator with all types of people. You can begin to make predictions about people that are fairly accurate, like one person moves forward quickly to get stuff done and another is more interested in the process and getting people to want to do stuff.  Those predictions help you map your communication and actions to their styles. Most often, people aren’t trying to annoy you on purpose; like you, they are just following their innate style. The only difference is that now you know what you can do about it.