Are You a Who, What, How or Why? Understanding Your Communication Style


"This is crazy."

"How did you do this?”

“Did you call my mother?”

These were the comments that I heard while recently facilitating a team building retreat for a hotel chain after I handed out the DiSC personalized communication skills assessment tool that I use to help people see and hear themselves the way others do. The fact of the matter is, it isn’t crazy, a computer program did it, and no, I didn’t call anyone’s mother. This valid and reliable instrument “magically” takes a respondent’s answers to a series of word-choice questions and churns out a report that seems to know them intimately. And at the end of the day, each person knows whether they are a What, a Who, a How or a Why – as well as different strategies for dealing with colleagues who aren’t like them.

And why did these folks react the way that they did? Because they were seeing, in black and white, an objective, unemotional explanation that reflected their unique behavioral styles, communication pace, needs, preferred environment, and strategies for effective behavior. These were the tendencies that they knew about themselves (but perhaps didn’t want to admit), had received feedback about (both lovingly and correctively), and wondered why other people didn’t see and do things the same way (to their long suffering frustration). In Bereshit it is written, “Let your ears hear what your lips speak!” This tool offers my clients that opportunity.

How do I know? Because I’m not just a coach – I’m also a client. When I was getting certified to use this assessment, I had to take it myself. When I showed my report (which pegged me perfectly as competitive, strong-willed, fast-paced, talkative, and emotional) to my husband Michael, he shook his head and announced, “I should have read this before we got married.” In the spirit of equality (ok, and retribution), I made him take his own assessment (detail-oriented, systematic, methodical, committed to being right, questions the status quo) and told him how lucky we were that opposites attract.

Well, not opposites completely – but with enough differences between us that we can see where and why we don’t see eye to eye on things. Each of us has a natural pace (fast or moderate) for accomplishing our work, and Michael tends to be the latter while I am the former. You may notice this difference around your office, too – you’ll want to take your time to get something right while a colleague of yours is breathing down your neck to hurry it up, seemingly placing speed before accuracy. Or perhaps the contrast feels like you: you’re constantly waiting on a committee member to finish making the calls she committed to, whereas you were finished weeks ago and want to move on, already! Tension exists when people work at different paces and those variable styles simmer below the surface.

But wait – there’s more! Not only do each of have a preferred pace, we also have another set of natural preferences at work: we either tend more towards fact-finding or people-seeking. Now, of course, most of us like to think that we have mastered a perfect balance of both. What I have found, however, is that even the most adept people managers have a natural tendency towards tasks over feelings, or vice versa. As a coach, speaker and trainer, I consider myself to be pretty good with people. But at the end of the day, in my heart of hearts, I know that I am somewhat more focused on tasks than on feelings. My proof is that every time I write an email, I get right down to the point: what I want, what I need you to deliver or what you need from me, and when it is due. Only after I have written that do I go back and add the social niceties like, “Dear Adam: How are you? I hope you’re enjoying this mild weather. Have you been to a baseball yet this season?” As much as I love people (well, most of you, anyway), I think I love tasks a little bit more which makes me a valuable asset for companies and clients who may need more butt-kicking than hand-holding.

All of these factors – fast, moderate, task-and-fact centered, people and feeling oriented – make up four different ways that we can identify our natural preferences: What, Who, How and Why. I’m a What with some Who in me, while my husband Michael is a Why with some What in him. (Does that sound like a Dr. Seuss book to you? To me, too. We must not be so different after all. But I digress to make small talk – that’s my Who shining through.)

So, what (or who or how or why) are you? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you know – and keep in mind that each of our teams, organizations and communities need all of these types to get the work done:


You may be a WHAT if:

  • You are focused on WHAT needs to get done – and on getting immediate results.
  • You make quick decisions, and expect others to do the same.
  • You prefer freedom from external control and supervision.
  • You are direct and get to the point quickly.
  • You seek opportunities for individual accomplishment.


You may be a WHO if:

  • You are focused on WHO is around the table – and how to generate enthusiasm.
  • You motivate others to get things accomplished.
  • You tend to be talkative, sociable, persuasive and friendly.
  • You are more big-picture than detail focused.
  • You thrive in group environments.


You may be a HOW if:

  • You are focused on HOW decisions get made – and the feelings of those around the table.
  • You prefer stable, harmonious work environments with minimal conflict.
  • You are recognized for being a generous listener.
  • You perform in a consistent, predictable manner, and prefer maintenance of the status quo.
  • You are known for your cooperative spirit.


You may be a WHY if:

  • You are focused on WHY actions are taken and decisions are made – and on taking the time needed to do things the right way.
  • You are detail oriented, precise and analytical.
  • You take a systematic approach to situations or activities.
  • You are reserved, diplomatic, and manage conflict indirectly or with subtlety.
  • You value quality and accuracy.

Did you see yourself in here? Did you recognize your tendencies and preferences? If so, use the space below to let me know if you are a WHAT, WHO, HOW or WHY. And if not, ask your mother!