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Mastering Interpersonal Communication and Overcoming People Differences with Flexibility

Executive Summary

Learning to navigate and adjust to different personalities and habits is essential if you want to have healthy relationships.

  • Going into a relationship looking to change the other person is a sure-fire way to ruin the relationship and miss an opportunity for personal growth.

  • If your employees are not responding to you the way you would like, you may have unwittingly become “tone deaf” to the way they prefer to be treated.

  • When people differences threaten to stand in the way of interpersonal communication, it may be time to step back and evaluate what you can do to make the other person feel more comfortable. What can you do to make it easier for them to relate to you?

You have your own ways of relating to people and accomplishing things. You’ve spent a lifetime developing these habits of interpersonal communication and are comfortable using them. They’re now second nature to you, and for the most part they work well for you. But the people you live with and work with have their own very different ways of relating and accomplishing things. They’ve spent a lifetime developing those habits and are comfortable using them. Their ways of doing things have become second nature to them, and for the most part, they work well for them.

When two people of different styles live or work together, one or both must adjust. If neither adapts to the other, interpersonal communication will deteriorate, cooperation will decline, the relationship will be stressed, and in work situations productivity will inevitably slump.

Although it can be a challenge to bridge the gap between people differences, no style is incompatible with any other style. When people of different styles don’t get along, the problem isn’t incompatibility; the problem usually is inflexibility. People of very different styles can collaborate fruitfully when one or both of them make an effort to adapt to the other.


Interpersonal flexibility is the ability to adapt to a wide variety of people in ways that are relatively stress-free for them. A person with high flexibility is adept at interpersonal communication because she notes the way the person she’s with prefers to interact. She has developed a fairly broad repertoire of behaviors that enable her to get in sync with all sorts of people differences. She typically manages her half of relationships in ways that are comfortable to the other person. The flexible person’s approach is captured in the sentence: ‘‘I’ll do what I can to make it easy for others to relate to me.’’

It’s instructive to compare high interpersonal flexibility with its opposite. People with low interpersonal flexibility are ‘‘tone deaf’’ to the ways other people like to be treated. They’re set in their ways and consistently rely on a narrow range of responses, regardless of their suitability to the occasion. Inflexible people are locked into responses that are characteristic of their own style, even when those behaviors turn people off and are self-defeating. Low-flex people typically are confident that their way is the right way.

There are two major components of high interpersonal flexibility:

• Basic Flex

First, a flexible person treats others the way virtually everyone wants to be treated. This way of relating to others is called basic flex because it’s so critical to constructive interactions and is recommended for all interpersonal communication. Basic flex involves treating people honestly, fairly, and with respect.

• Style Flex

The other major aspect of interpersonal flexibility is style flex—the temporary adjustment of a few of your behaviors to make the interaction more comfortable for the other person. Some aspects of this definition deserve elaboration.



When it becomes clear that a relationship would work better if some changes were made, the question becomes, ‘‘Who will make the changes—the other person or me?’’ People usually assume the other person is the one who should change. So in the quest for improved relationships, people typically try to change their spouse, their kids, their parents, their peers, their manager, their reports, and others who are important to their happiness and success.

But trying to improve a relationship by reforming the other person seldom works. The primary leverage you have for improving a relationship is your own behavior. Things look up when you shift the emphasis from ‘‘How can I get you to change?’’ to ‘‘What changes will I make?’’ You can’t control other people’s behavior. But you can control your own. You can make a positive contribution to the relationship by getting more in sync with the other person’s way of interacting.

It may seem like bad news that in order to improve a relationship you’ll often need to unilaterally adapt to the other person’s manner of doing things. However, taking the initiative in improving the relationship will generally create three positive outcomes for you.

  1. See Immediate Results: First, you don’t have to wait for the other person to come around to your manner of doing things in order to relate effectively or function productively with that person. That could be a v-e-r-y long wait. Making a few changes in your behavior will enable you to immediately make some improvements in the relationship.
  2. Reach Your Goals: Also, your ability and willingness to adapt to the other person can help you achieve your goals.
  3. Improve Your Relationships: The third benefit of changing your behavior to improve the relationship surprises many people. When you make it easier and more comfortable for another person to work with you, that person often changes his behavior in ways that you appreciate. What starts out as a one-sided effort often winds up as a mutual contribution to improving the relationship.

The point we’re making bears repeating: Style flex involves taking the initiative for improving the relationship when people differences threaten to derail the connection. It entails unilaterally changing some aspects of your interpersonal communication to make it easier and pleasanter for the other person to relate to you. It doesn’t matter who the other person is—your manager, a peer, a supplier, a customer, someone who reports to you; a member of your family, or a friend—a flexible person is prepared to take the first step toward enhancing the relationship.

Robert Bolton | Dorothy Grover Bolton

ROBERT BOLTON, PH.D., is known for his expertise in training trainers. He is a cofounder of Ridge Associates, a training and consulting firm that serves many Fortune 500 companies, and the author of several books.

DOROTHY GROVER BOLTON, ED.M., are known for their expertise in training trainers. They are cofounders of Ridge Associates, a training and consulting firm that serves many Fortune 500 companies, and the authors of several books including the perennially popular People Styles at Work . . . And Beyond.


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