Karen Dempster portrait

Written by Karen Dempster

Written with Justin Robbins. Lifetime communication experts, founders of Fit2Communicate and Fellows of the Institute of Internal Communications. Authors of How to Build Communication Success in Your School: A Guide for School Leaders.

Have you ever been in a conversation when …?

  • You’ve not felt you had a voice or even if you’ve spoken you’ve not felt heard?
  • The language or jargon being used has made you feel like an outsider or confused?
  • Worse still the language used has been insensitive and upsetting simply because the other person did not put themselves in your shoes?

You may even have done this to someone else, without even realising. However, these common experiences are simply not inclusive. And they are absolutely avoidable if you consider these points when you communicate.

Listen first to understand

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that you listen through filters, which shape what you hear. They are built up through life-long conditioning and create bias. It’s important to practice regular self-reflection and question your bias, supported through on-going education.

In addition, there are different levels of listening. Some we all do instinctively, for example when we jump to conclusions, are impatient to share our views or listen to surface details.

Inclusive listening takes a little more work but will take your listening to another level. For example, it requires you to acknowledge there are two conversations going on at any one time. The first being what you hear from the person in the conversation, the second is the chatter that naturally happens in your head. To listen fully, consider asking yourself the following questions internally:

  • Do I fully understand what they are saying?​
  • What can I sense from their energy, body language and facial expressions?
  • Am I showing them that I am listening?​
  • What could I ask to help me understand better?​

Now consider asking questions as part of your conversation with the other person to better understand their perspective, such as:

  • I heard you say … is that correct?
  • Can you give me an example to help me to understand better?
  • Can you tell me more about that?​
  • Can I do anything to help?

This will help you to stay present and fully listen. As a result, people will see that you are focused on them, what they are saying and that you value their opinion and ideas.

Watch your words

The words you choose clearly have a huge impact on how inclusively you communicate. The wrong, insensitive words can have catastrophic effects – often simply by not thinking before speaking.

It’s sometimes tricky to know what words to use when is comes to protected characteristics. However, through ongoing education and talking with the right people and groups, you can stay respectful and inclusive.

Also, consider you can be more inclusive by using words that mean something to those around you. Certain phrases or words that you use quite naturally with friends or colleagues, may not be understood by others. For example, those from a certain part of the country may talk about ‘going around the Wrekin’. The same applies for jargon, acronyms and highly technical language. 

It may seem innocent enough but speaking in words that mean nothing to the person you are communicating with can at best confuse them or worst annoy and alienate them.

Recognise that people communicate differently

Without recognising that people communicate differently based on their behavioural and communication preferences, communication diversity cannot be considered. Psychologist, William Moulton Marston, created a personality profiling tool called DISC, to understand these preferences.

Simply speaking, people communicate based on four preferences that are explained below. Everyone is a mixture of these, they are situation dependent, but will have a stronger preference for one type. Which one do you believe is closest to you?

  1. Are you outspoken (extroverted) with a focus on getting things done? Do people sometimes consider you to be direct, blunt, decisive, competitive, assertive and often impatient? If so, you may have a red communication preference.
  2. Are you outspoken (extroverted) with a focus on people? Are you considered social, confident, optimistic, inspiring, collaborative and often emotional? You may have a yellow communication preference.
  3. Are you reflective (introverted) with a focus on people? Are you considered to be calm, co-operative, patient, good listeners, deliberate and often stubborn? You may have a green communication preference.
  4. Are you reflective (introverted) with a focus on getting things done? Are you considered to be independent, systematic, diplomatic, reflective and often detail focused? You may have a blue communication preference.

Each colour has a different filter through which they communicate. If you are red speaking with someone who is green (who are opposites), it could literally be like talking to someone in a different language.

However, there are simple things you can do to spot preferences and adapt your style to communicate inclusively. It takes practice at first but it’s worth the effort to enhance your communication and relationships.

Find out more about your DISC preference (and those of others) here [What’s your communication colour? (fit2communicate.com)].