What is Your Explanatory Style?

When it comes to understanding effective communication strategies, many approaches tend to skim over addressing how messages are received and rather focus on how to efficiently manage outward communication. However, failing to address explanatory style, which refers to how people interpret life experiences, leaves room for error, as the way that events and conversations are interpreted can vary from person to person. After all, it’s hard to respond appropriately to situations or colleagues when our interpretation of them might be affected by our own personal explanatory style.

  • Stable vs. Unstable: When faced with stressors, it’s important to evaluate whether the situation is stable or unstable i.e. how long is the situation expected to last? How soon do you expect the situation to improve? This can make a difference in how stressful something seems. For example, taking a stressful class can affect us very differently than feeling highly stressed at work. This is because knowing that the class will end in a few months can make the stress much more bearable than feeling stressed at a job1.
  • Global vs. Local: Whether we view stressors as global or local can have a significant impact on how we interpret the situation. That is because people are more likely to shake things off when they view the stressor as something local, or in other words something that’s more of a variable, than a stressor that is viewed in more of a global context which may make it seem less flexible. For example, performing poorly one day at work probably seems less significant when viewing it with a local point of view as one is more likely to attribute it to something temporary like not getting a full night of sleep or having an off day. However, when viewed from a global standpoint, performing badly at work on one’s first day might be seen as something that is inflexible such as an inability to do the job well.
  • Internal vs. External: Depending on the person, some tend to internalize stressors more than others. Whether or not an event is viewed as being influenced by oneself rather than external factors, we can interpret situations as either being our own fault or simply the consequence of factors that are out of our control. By viewing a stressor as external, we are better equipped to address it without assigning internal blame.

Additionally, the questions listed below can be used to separate what occurred from how we interpreted it.

  1. What would be a different way to view the feedback you receive from your preceptor?
  2. How might your stress level be different if you perceived the feedback as professional development?
  3. What are you not seeing or acknowledging in this situation?
  4. What other areas of your life are affected by the stress that you currently feel from feedback?
  5. If you don’t change your perspective, how might this impact your professional career?
  6. What actions can you take when you receive feedback to react more positively?
  7. Who could you ask for help to act as a sounding board in these situations?
  8. How can I help you to view professional feedback differently?2

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1Scott, E. (July 10th, 2018 Blog) Explanatory Styles and their role in Stress. 

2Sharman, R. (January 31st, 2019 Blog) Changing Your Explanatory Style.


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