How to Adapt the Way You Communicate to Different Situations

We communicate with people every day, but sometimes we do not adjust our communication style to the audience or situation. This can lead to confusion, hurt feelings, or misunderstandings. Learn how to adapt the way you communicate to different situations by considering the many factors that influence the effectiveness of your communication.


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    Think about the situation or occasion. The context of your communication makes a difference both in the way you engage with others and in the way they interpret your communication.
    • Remember that time and place matter. A joke that would be a hit with your friends may not be appropriate at the office. Similarly, pouring your heart out to a dear friend is different from doing so with a young child.
    • Identify the level of formality. Formal occasions like ceremonies and business presentations require more formal language and dress. Informal occasions like hanging out with your family or friends allow you to be more relaxed and casual.
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    Identify your goal. Know the purpose of your interaction so you can adapt your communication effectively. For example, if you want to build a friendship with a colleague, you may invite them out for a cup of coffee or ask them to join you for lunch. But if you want to keep your work and personal lives separate, you will probably keep your communication polite and professional.
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    Know your audience. To adapt your communication effectively, you need to understand who you are talking with. See things from their view and tailor your communication to them as much as possible.
    • Recognize your relationship with the audience. With a good friend, you will probably be able to be more upfront and blunt. With a supervisor, you will want to speak with respect. With a cashier, you may want to be friendly, but conservative.
    • Acknowledge differences in personality. For example, extroverts like to communicate face-to-face, over the phone, and in large groups. They tend to think aloud. Introverts prefer to talk through emails, text messages, and in one-on-one conversations. They often need time to reflect before answering questions.
    • Conduct an audience analysis. Look at the age span, gender, education level, values, cultures, family structures, and background experiences of those in your audience. This is especially helpful when giving speeches to unfamiliar audiences.
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    Consider the method of your communication. Each method of communication has advantages and disadvantages. If you are able to choose, pick the method that would be most effective for your audience. Otherwise, work within its existing structure.
    • During meetings, participate by sharing ideas, but also take the time to listen. Do not monopolize the discussion.
    • When giving a speech, realize that you are the only one talking. Anticipate questions your audience may have and try to address those in your communication.
    • When engaging in social media, you can be more relaxed. Communication often occurs in one- or two-sentence segments. Be casual, but concise.
    • Email and text messaging require a conscious choice of words. Be direct. Express tone through your words or the use of emoticons (smiley faces).
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    Watch your words. Be intentional with the language you use. Words can help you quickly connect with someone, but they may also offend them.
    • Choose words based on the age, education, and literacy level of the person(s) you are talking with. Use words they understand and can connect with.
    • Use technical words only if you are communicating with people who know what they mean. If you must use jargon, take the time to explain what it means.
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    Be intentional with your body language. Body language can be interpreted differently in different situations. Adapt your nonverbal communication to the situation at hand.
    • Eye contact is generally a good way to connect with the person you are talking with. However, if it is an extremely sensitive situation, sitting side-by-side with someone can remove the pressure of having to look someone in the eyes and thus make the other person more comfortable.
    • Personal space varies both by culture, by individual, and by relationship. With your significant other, you may sit close enough that your legs or shoulders are touching. However, when you sit near a supervisor or complete stranger, you want to leave some distance between you.
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    Pay attention to the other person's feedback. Some people may offer verbal feedback by asking questions. You can also watch their nonverbal communication -- crossing their arms, looking away, yawning, nodding -- to see how they are responding to what you are saying.
    • If they seem nervous, make sure you are in a place where they feel comfortable. Engage them in small talk to help them calm down. Ask questions to get to know them better.
    • If they seem confused, explain it again in different words. Ask them what part confuses them. Find visuals, metaphors, or illustrations to demonstrate your point clearly.
    • If they seem upset, listen to them and try to understand why. Wait to voice your own thoughts or attempt to persuade them differently.


  • Adapt to the other person. Communication needs to be audience-centered, meaning you adjust to their communication preferences. For example, if you are an introvert and prefer sending an email, but you are talking with an extrovert who prefers talking face-to-face, you need to let go of your own preferences and meet with them.
  • Write down your audience-centered communication plan when preparing for public speeches. These will help you think through areas that will affect the way your message is received.

Sources and Citations

  • Duck, Steve, and David McMahan. The Basics of Communication: A Relational Perspective. 2nd edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012.
  • Adler, Ronald B., and Neil Towne. Looking Out, Looking In. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003.
  • Newlands, Alison; Anderson, Anne H.; Mullin, Jim. "Adapting Communicative Strategies to computer-mediated communication." Applied Cognitive Psychology, Apr 2003: 325-348.
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Categories: Speaking and Listening Skills