Understanding the Four Types of Communication Styles in Workplace Conversations

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At first glance, communication seems straightforward. After all, we engage in some form of verbal or non-verbal communication every minute of every day almost effortlessly. As an example, we engage in intrapersonal communication (self-talk) frequently throughout the day and we have conversations with one or more people daily at home, the store, or at work.

Communication, specifically effective communication, is actually a complex process with many nuances that can help or detract a listener from fully understanding the sender’s intended message. One complexity that impacts how we listen and respond is the style in which a communicator delivers their message. Experts identify four types of communication styles that impact conversations in any setting, specifically workplace conversations. Because we spend most of our time at work communicating with colleagues, we’ll take a closer look at the four types of communication styles, and how to identify them.

The four communication styles discussed are:

  1. Passive Communication
  2. Aggressive Communication
  3. Passive-Aggressive Communication
  4. Assertive Communication

While a person may have a dominant style of communication, they can easily switch styles depending on their circumstances. This is something to keep in mind when learning the traits of each of the four types of communication style. As an example, some circumstances may include the communicators’ current mood. A person’s communication style may change from their “normal” style of communication to any of the four communication styles based on the individual they are communicating with. For example, a person may be a passive-aggressive communicator, but switch to an all aggressive style of communicating if they feel frustrated or angered. The same holds true for a passive communicator, who may decide to show their assertive style of communication in a specific situation. Regardless of the situation, the goal is to learn to recognize the four different communication styles and how to best respond to them.

First on my list of of the four types of communication styles is the passive communicator.

The Passive Communicator

passive communicator - four types of communication styles

Passive people seek to avoid confrontation at all costs. Depending on their personality, the passive person may come across to others as shy, easygoing, or nonchalant. Passive communicators are often “people pleasers” taking on more work than they can handle just to please their supervisors or colleagues.

Passive communicators are sometimes reluctant to express ideas, wants, or needs in the workplace. Their unfulfilled wants or needs can cause resentment among co-workers, specifically team members, as the passive communicator cannot fulfill their job, resulting in delaying team progress.

In social communicative settings, the passive communicator may:

  • Often be a people pleaser, taking on too many tasks just to please people.
  • Lack confidence and fail to assert themselves.
  • Fail to express their feelings, needs, or opinions.
  • Allow peers or strangers to inhibit their rights.
  • Exhibit poor eye contact or have poor body posture like slumped in their chairs.
  • Often speak softly to avoid from sounding aggressive.
  • Be too apologetic when communicating with peers.

Because of their passiveness, the passive communicator may often feel:

  • Anxious as they feel they do not have control over their own lives.
  • Depressed because of their belief they are stuck or are hopeless.
  • Resentful towards others because they fail to speak up and find that their needs are not being met because of their passiveness.
  • Confused because they are unaware and ignore their own emotions.

Phrases passive communicators may use.

NOTE: It is possible for communicators of all styles to use the following phrases. However, the passive communicator consistently makes the following statements when communicating with team members:

  • “People never consider my ideas or suggestions.”
  • “I don’t care what we do here.”
  • “I don’t have an opinion either way.”
  • “I’m OK with whatever the team decides.”
  • “I get stepped on by my bosses (peers).”
  • “No one ever listens to me.”

Communicating with Passive Communicators

Passive communicators come in various personalities and communication styles. Some are more passive while others may have an adaptive passive communication style while at work. Regardless of their style, the passive communicator may feel less confident communicating, especially in front of supervisors or in front of a group.

Some tips to help others communicate successfully with passive communicators include:

  • Creating a safe and open working or conversation environment. Passive communicators lean toward shyness and, by providing a safe environment for them to move about and mingle, whether in the office, group settings, or online virtual meetings, provide them the opportunity to open up to their colleagues.
  • Use supportive communication with them. Because of their lack of confidence, it may be easy for a colleague or supervisor to state, “You need to be more confident in your work.” However, this type of statement can appear aggressive or even insulting. Instead, try a statement that promotes confidence in the passive communicator. Say something like, “You do great work. I would like to hear more about your thought process on this project.”
  • Encourage ideas, regardless of whether they will work. The strategy is to build confidence and encourage original thinking. Rather than blatantly stating that an idea will not work, encourage further thought on the idea by asking others if they have something to add to the idea.
  • Avoid aggressive communication and anger when communicating. Most passive communicators shut down when confronted with a hostile communicator. Instead, exhibit patience and encouragement to motivate the passive communicator to open up, as opposed to shutting down.
  • Be direct with passive communicators. They rarely share their opinions or ideas in a public setting. It’s ok to be direct and ask passive communicators for their opinions and ideas. One strategy is to inform employees or team members you are going to solicit their feedback and that they should be prepared to share ideas and thoughts. This gives the passive communicator, and others, an opportunity to prepare their ideas before they are called on.

The Aggressive Communicator

aggressive communicator - man yelling at woman

Opposite the passive communicator is the aggressive communicator. The presence of an aggressive communicator may make you feel like you’re facing a giant frothing at the mouth, ready to take you down. That may be an exaggeration, yet I’m certain some people may find truth in the description.

The aggressive communicator speaks in a hostile manner, sometimes sounding angry. Co-workers often may characterize the aggressive communicator as an egomaniac; an obsessively self-centered person. This type of communication style carries consequences, however. Aggressive communicators can create conflicts amongst co-workers and supervisors. They can impede team progress, as other team members are reluctant to work with the aggressive communicator.

Some traits exhibited by aggressive communicators may include:

  • Trying to dominate others.
  • Criticizing, blaming, or attacking others.
  • Using humiliation to control.
  • Impulsive behavior.
  • Becoming frustrated easily.
  • Speaking loudly or a demanding and overbearing voice.
  • Threatening acts or rude behavior.
  • Poor listening skills.
  • Frequently interrupting others.
  • Standing with an overbearing or intimidating posture when communicating.

The aggressive communicators’ behavioral impact may:

  • Cause them to become alienated or alienate others.
  • Generate hatred or fear among their co-workers or others they communicate with.
  • Not take ownership of their aggressive communication and blame others for their issues.
  • Cause the aggressive communicator to lack emotional intelligence.

Phrases or beliefs an aggressive communicator may exhibit include:

  • “I own you.”
  • “You owe me.”
  • “I’m entitled to or privileged.”
  • “You’re at fault, not me.”
  • “You are worthless.”
  • “I always get my way, no matter what.”
  • “I have the freedom to violate your rights.”
  • “I can dominate and intimidate you.”
  • “I’m the boss and I’m loud and pushy.”
  • “I am superior, and you are inferior.”

Tips for Communicating with Aggressive Communicators

Of the four types of communication styles, the aggressive communicators are difficult to deal with. They are closed to anyone else’s input or opinions and feel that they are always, or most often, correct. Their primary aim is to intimidate and dominate any conversation or situation. Some strategies for communicating with aggressive communicators may include:

  • Demonstrating patience. Think before you speak and take the time to address their issues and concerns.
  • Speak with them positively. If you are a supervisor, use a constructive approach — kindness — to advise them when correcting their aggressive communication behavior. Avoid insulting them or communicating aggressively. Instead, model a positive communication style.
  • Keep conversations on task and brief. If the conversation strays off-topic, steer it back by saying something like, “I can feel your frustration, but let’s discuss the main points of the issue.”
  • If you still find it difficult to communicate with an aggressive communicator, limit your conversations and move them away from in-person discussion to email or other asynchronous communication method, such as pre-recorded videos, or written memos.

The Passive-Aggressive Communicator

a passive aggressive communicator sitting with her arms folded in front of her.

A passive-aggressive communicator is one that at face value appears to be passive in their communication style, yet deep down, the passive-aggressive communicator is manifesting hurtful gossip, sarcasm, patronizing behavior, and starting rumors.

While the passive-aggressive communicator appears passive in their conversation demeanor, they are as equally toxic as the aggressive communicator. Passive-aggressive communicators can be highly manipulative and their behavior needs to be corrected sooner than later.

Feelings of powerlessness motivate the passive-aggressive communicator. They feel stuck and resentful or they feel as though they are incapable of dealing directly with the subject of their resentments. The passive-aggressive communicator expresses their anger by undermining the subject of their resentment, whether real or imagined.

Passive-aggressive communicators will often:

  • Make comments to themselves rather than confront the subject of their issues.
  • Have difficulty acknowledging their anger.
  • Mask their facial expressions with an emotion other than what they are feeling, for example, they will smile when actually felling angry.
  • Deny there is a problem.
  • Use sarcasm when communicating.
  • Appear cooperative but purposefully annoy and disrupt their coworkers.
  • Get even by using subtle sabotage language or actions.

The behavior pattern associated with the passive-aggressive communicator is that they:

  • Become alienated from their peers and people close with them.
  • Remain stuck in their position of powerlessness, not able to resolve their anger or frustration.

  • Discharge resentment, never addressing the actual issues discussed.

Statements passive-aggressive communicators may make or thoughts they believe or behave like include:

  • “I am weak and resentful, so I sabotage, frustrate, and disrupt my peers and coworkers.”
  • “Because I feel powerless in dealing with you directly, I resort to guerilla style warfare to communicate my thoughts and actions.”
  • “I will fool you by appearing cooperative, but I am not actually cooperative.”

How to Communicate with a Passive-Aggressive Communicator

  • Avoid mirroring the passive-aggressive communicators when responding. Doing so can spread more toxicity and make matters worse.
  • Approach the passive-aggressive communicator with an assertive and positive demeanor. Build-up the passive-aggressive team member by offering solutions everyone can benefit from while highlighting their contributions to the team.
  • Use positive and assertive communication to rephrase their message. As a result, they can see how they can better deliver their message.
  • Try to identify the reason for the passive-aggressive behavior. Do they become passive aggressive when faced with deadlines? Are they having issues at work or home that lead them toward this style of communication? If you can find the root of their passive-aggressiveness, you may offer solutions to help the communicator overcome their frustration.

The Assertive Communicator

confident, assertive communicator woman speaking to work colleague

Do not mistake assertive communicators with aggressive communicators. As already discussed, the aggressive communicator is hostile in their approach to communicating with others. They often come across as angry and are more concerned with their own needs and lack the emotional intelligence when speaking with others.

The assertive communicator is perhaps to most favorable of all four types of communication styles. Assertive communicators are clear about their feelings and opinions. They advocate for their rights and needs, but without violating the rights of those they are communicating with. The assertive communicator demonstrates a high degree of emotional intelligence.

The assertive communicator has a higher self-esteem and confidence than other communication styles and they value themselves, their time, and emotional, spiritual, and physical needs while being respectful towards others when communicating.

Assertive communicator traits may include:

  • Feeling connected to others.
  • Easily state their needs and wants with respect.
  • Easily expresses their feelings.
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Demonstrates high emotional intelligence when communicating with others.
  • Engages in active listening.
  • Exhibits self-control.
  • Uses good eye contact when communicating.
  • A relaxed body posture.
  • Does not allow others to manipulate or abuse them.
  • Stands up for their rights.

Behavior patterns exhibited by assertive communicators include:

  • Self-confidence in themselves and others.
  • Calm and respectful.
  • Create a respectful environment for others to grow and develop.

Statements or beliefs held by assertive communicators include:

  • “I am equally entitled to express ourselves respectfully to one another.”
  • “I am confident about who I am.”
  • “I realize I have options in my life and I consider my options.”
  • “I speak clearly, honestly, and to the point.”
  • “I cannot control others, but I can control myself.”
  • “I place a top priority on having my rights respected.”
  • “I respect the rights of others.”
  • “I am 100% responsible for my happiness.”

Final Thoughts

Communicating is a rather simple task. However, communicating effectively — that is — to get others to understand your message and respond in kind takes skill and strategy. Understanding the four types of communication styles is just the beginning of your journey in becoming an effective communicator.

While people are dominant in one style of communication, they often adapt their communication to the work environment, who they are communicating with, or their moods. The assertive communicator benefits the most as an effective communicator. They both speak their mind, asserting their ideas, while demonstrating a high level of emotional intelligence and respect for those they communicate with.

While assertive communicators may not change the communication styles of their peers, they can use specific strategies to better navigate the various styles of communication in order to accomplish their goals.

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