Have you ever spent ages preparing a detailed document, you’ve sent it to your boss, and know she hasn’t opened it when she asks you to tell her a quick overview of the document? Or have you been on your way out of the office, thought you’d pop your head into your boss’s office to give him a quick update of the day’s sales only for him to ask you to put the details into an email for him to read? Did it make you see red? Did you want to give them an earful? Or did it make your blood boil?

If so, it might be time to remind yourself that you need to adapt your communication style depending on the way your boss thinks and learns rather than doing it based on your preferred communication style. This will not only save you time, effort and energy but a lot of frustration too! It will also prove to your boss that you can communicate effectively with lots of different people, and might enhance your promotion opportunities.

Different Communication Styles

To understand different communication styles, it’s important to know how the human brain influences how you communicate, so that you can picture what this is all about, hear what I’m saying, and grasp my point. Your brain is currently trapped in a very dark place and relies on getting information from the outside world via your five senses: your eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin. Your brain filters this information and stores it so that you can access it when you communicate with other human beings. Most people have a preference of what information they pay more attention to, how they store information, and how they communicate it. It’s this preference that determines how they best receive information in order to learn, understand and retain it. This is largely out of your conscious awareness until you read an article such as this.


According to VAK or modality theory (from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)), it says that everyone has a preference for how they receive and learn new information and experiences. Some people have a Visual preference, some an Auditory preference and others a Kinaesthetic preference. What this means is that, depending on your preference, you will need information to be presented to you in a certain way in order for it to paint a clear picture for you, so you can listen to what I’m saying and so that it makes complete sense to you.

Read the following questions to find out if you have a preference, and if so, which one it is?

1.How would you help a new staff member understand how your department fits into the rest of the organisation? Would you:

a. Draw them a diagram?

b. Just tell them?

c. Walk them around the different departments?

2. You’re giving a presentation, how would you help your audience to keep engaged and understand your key        points? Would you:

a. Use lots of visual aids?

b. Talk to them being very specific about the words and phrases you use?

c. Tell lots of stories and use audience participation when possible?

3. How do you study for exams? Do you:

a. Re-write and re-read your notes?

b. Record yourself reading the information out loud and listen to it over and over again?

c. Do past exams, ideally doing a Q&A session with someone else?

4. If you had to choose, what’s your preferred method of communication?

a. Email or face-to-face

b. Phone

c. Face-to-face

5. Suppose you’re lost, how would you find your way?

a. Go onto Google Maps

b. Ask someone

c. Wander around until you stumble upon your destination

What your answers reveal about your preference

If you answered mainly a’s you might have a preference for visual learning. If you answered mainly b’s you might have a preference for auditory learning, and if you answered mainly c’s you might have a preference for kinaesthetic learning.

(I would like to highlight that, of course, all of this is a generalisation. Everyone uses different communication and learning styles depending on the situation, the other person and the context. Everyone is capable of learning, adapting and changing, but often you will find that most people do have a preference. There is also no right or wrong, better or worse, just different.)

A problem when the other person’s preference is different 

What happens is that usually people communicate with others in the same way that they prefer to communicate, which is fine when they’re the same, but the problem comes when they’re different, as with the example at the beginning. So how do you find out other people’s preferences?

Option One

Firstly, you could just ask them: ‘How do you prefer to learn or receive information?’

Option Two

Secondly, if you can’t picture yourself doing that, or you don’t think you could get the words out correctly, or don’t feel comfortable doing that, you could use your powers of observation and notice what they do, or how they respond to different types of communication. For example, if they ignore your emails but seem engaged when you’re updating them face-to-face, it could be that they’re a kinaesthetic learner.

Option Three

Thirdly, start communicating using all three modalities and notice the one to which they respond best!

Option Four

Fourthly, you can listen to the words they use. You’ll notice how certain words relate to different modalities, and they’re outlined below.

The following is an overview of the three communication styles so that you can start to pay attention to other people’s preferences. Then you can adapt your communication style and language to suit their needs, which is how you get through to your boss, colleagues, friends and family!

Visual learners and communicators

They absorb and retain information better when there’s a visual element so make sure you give them written reports punctuated with relevant images, diagrams and charts. As they prefer to see the information, emailing them is good. People with this preference are interested in how your message looks so make sure the document you give them is well-presented and you’ve checked your grammar and spelling. They will be distracted by long verbal instructions so be brief when speaking to them and then give them the detail in written format.

Words: see, look, appear, reveal, imagine, focus, paint, picture, observe, outlook.

Phrases: in view of, in light of, mind’s eye, showing off, tunnel vision, mental picture.

Auditory learners and communicators

They absorb and retain information by listening intently to what they hear. They will listen closely to everything you say, so choose your words carefully when speaking to an auditory communicator. They’re particularly interested in the specific flow, language, tone of voice and rhythm of your speech so be careful to structure your communication with care and consideration. They prefer listening to audio books than reading books, so tell them what you’re doing rather than give them a written report. They like talking on the phone, having tele-seminars and conference calls because they can focus on what’s being said rather than be distracted with visual or physical cues.

Words: echo, buzz, roar, rhythm, hear, listen, sound, harmonise, talk, speak, noise.

Phrases: hold your tongue, loud and clear, pay attention to, unheard of, voiced an opinion, manner of speaking, well informed, word for word, lend me your ear.

Kinaesthetic learners and communicators
They absorb and retain information when they see and/or hear information with movement and physical action so you need to provide things to look at that they can physically touch. They prefer doing, moving, acting out and having a ‘hands-on’ approach. They are interested in how a message feels; does it feel right? Do they have a gut feel about it? In presentations, they’ll respond well to being able to touch a learning prop, and they like a variety of audience participation such as role plays, activities and exercises so they can move around and get involved. They prefer face-to-face communication (or video conferencing), so that they can see you and get a sense of what you’re feeling about a particular topic, and be involved fully in the conversation. They also like to be tactile with you and/or the information you’re reviewing. Try combining walking when you want to discuss something with them.

Words: feel, touch, grasp, catch on, tap into, throw out, turn around, make contact.

Phrases: keep your shirt on, pain in the neck, stiff upper lip, know-how, too much hassle, all washed up, key note speaker, describe in detail, to tell you the truth.

So… do you see what I mean now? Is it clear as a bell to you? Do you grasp it?

If you’d like your team to be able to communicate even more effectively, check out my ‘Art of Communication’ course.