While an individual’s communication style may vary greatly depending on the situation, their mood, who they’re speaking with, and countless other factors, people tend to have communication styles that they frequently revert to.
That said, people certainly aren’t boxed in to one style forever and awareness of our communication styles is the first step toward improvement.
What’s Your Communication Style?
Below is a basic overview of the four different communication styles:
A person demonstrating an aggressive communication style tends to be hyper-focused on their own emotions, perspective, and objective to the point where they disregard other people’s emotions, perspectives, or objectives.
This person may be inappropriately honest without awareness or concern about how their honesty may impact others. While honesty is certainly important and valued in communicating, someone communicating in an aggressive manner may say something like, “You never do any chores around here! You’re lazy and inconsiderate!” to a roommate who is not doing their chores, instead of taking time to consider a more tactful way to communicate this message.
Understandably, an aggressive communication style tends to be received by others as attacking and blaming. This is problematic because when people feel attacked or blamed, they feel defensive. This can quickly escalate and turn into an argument or battle instead of an effective conversation.
Other qualities that tend to be associated with an aggressive communication style are hostility, anger, and inflexibility. Instead of seeking to understand other perspectives, working toward a compromise, or respecting other people in the conversation, someone with an aggressive style tends to be concrete in their views and unwilling to acknowledge nuances or alternate opinions.
They typically communicate this in a way that feels angry and hot-tempered, often with a raised voice, hostile body language, and biting words. To others, this may feel controlling or frightening. While aggressive communicators may get their objectives met in the short-term, it often comes at the cost of burning relationships and not getting their objectives met in the long-term.
A person demonstrating a passive communication style tends to deny their own needs, opinions, or emotions. This person may be emotionally dishonest and accept the blame for everything.
Someone with a passive communication style may apologize unnecessarily, bend to the will of other people, and consistently put other people’s opinions and emotions before their own.For example, instead of confronting their roommate about not doing their share of the chores, a person with a passive communication style may not bring it up at all, or may dishonestly say, “It doesn’t bother me, I know you’re busy.”
This is problematic because this communication style isn’t effective for the communicator to be understood or for their needs to be met. While passive communicators may avoid confrontation, challenging conversations, or upsetting others, it often comes at the cost of voicing their true emotions, views, or needs.
A person demonstrating a passive-aggressive communication style tends to utilize passive communication styles at first, but later employs techniques to express their needs or emotions in a non-direct, subtly aggressive way, often at the expense of others.
For instance, in the example of communicating with a roommate who does not do their chores, someone with a passive-aggressive communication style may say something like, “Wow, there are a lot of dirty dishes in the sink” instead of directly asking their roommate for help.
Alternatively, they may avoid saying anything at all and opt instead to leave the dirty dishes in the sink, buy paper plates to use for eating, and angrily note how long it takes their roommate to finally wash the dishes.
A passive-aggressive communication style may be received by others as manipulative and frustrating. This type of communication style is problematic because it tends to discourage clear and honest communication and can create tension in relationships.
The assertive communication style is hailed as the ideal method of communicating in order to promote effective and healthy relationships. A person who exhibits assertive traits is direct and clear. They are able to balance respect and consideration for other people’s views and emotions, while maintaining their own opinions and needs.
Assertive communication is empathetic and seeks to both understand and be understood. Someone who engages in this communication style is able to let go of the need to win or be right, and is able to come to a compromise or agree to disagree.
Certainly, there are times when it is important for someone to stand their ground on a subject and refuse to compromise, but it is entirely possible to do this in an assertive way rather than an aggressive way.
Part of assertive communication is being able to recognize the need to cool down and having wisdom about the appropriate time and place to communicate.
Continuing with the above example, an assertive statement could be, “I noticed that you haven’t been doing your share of the chores we agreed on and I’m feeling frustrated about it. I know you’ve been busy lately but it’s really important to me that we all pitch in around our home. How can we make this work?”
An assertive communicator is also attentive to nonverbal communication. This includes being aware of appropriate tone, body language, and expressions. For example, someone using an assertive style is aware that it is often helpful to avoid nonverbal communications such as a sarcastic tone, eye rolling, or clenched fists.
One of the most important yet often overlooked skills in communication is active listening. Active listening is essentially giving your complete attention to someone, seeking to understand the message they are conveying, and demonstrating that you are doing this so they know you are fully engaged.
This is important for a number of reasons. First, it treats the other person with respect and promotes a productive conversation over an argument. In doing this, it also encourages the speaker to treat you with similar respect when it is your turn to talk.
Active listening is also important because it fosters a positive relationship bond and reinforces healthy communication styles. It also increases the likelihood of both parties feeling validated and understood.
There are several ways to communicate your full engagement and demonstrate active listening. One way is to notice when your mind is wandering, and gently redirect it to the person and what they are saying.
Pay attention to more than just the words they are saying; notice their tone, body language, emotion, context, et cetera. Take all of this into account as you seek to understand the fullness of the message they are trying to convey.
Additionally, avoid simply waiting for your turn to speak, thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next, or allowing your mind to be distracted by other thoughts. It can be natural for these things to happen, but the more you practice bringing your attention back to active listening, the easier it will become.
In addition to being mentally engaged in the conversation, it is important to convey this to the speaker. You can do this in a variety of ways. For example, you can use your words by using encouraging phrases such as “interesting,” “tell me more,” “mmm-hmm,” or other context-appropriate language that lets the speaker know you are listening.
You can also demonstrate engagement with your body language by making eye contact, nodding appropriately, turning to face the person, and avoiding doing other activities such as checking your phone or looking at your watch.
Another way to promote active listening is to offer reflective statements summarizing what the person is communicating, to confirm understanding. It is helpful to try to refrain from evaluating or offering your own opinions, unless the speaker asked for this type of input. Instead, start by simply observing.
For example, if someone is telling you a lengthy story about one of their friends who has been repeatedly cancelling plans, instead of saying, “You should stop trying to make plans with this friend” or “Your friend is probably just really busy,” it is likely more effective to simply reflect what they’ve said.
You can say something like, “It sounds really frustrating that your friend has been bailing on a lot of plans lately.” In doing this, it is also important to be open to having misunderstood and to be corrected by the speaker.
For example, your friend may then respond by saying, “I’m not frustrated, I’m just really hurt. It feels like they don’t care about me.” In this way, reflective statements help us to better understand the heart of what the person is communicating, while demonstrating our support.
Another method to practice active listening is by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that elicit more than a yes or no response. For example, in the scenario above, a closed-ended question would be, “Your friend is not treating you well; do you still want to spend time with them?”
This type of question is likely unhelpful. It may be frustrating to the speaker because it pigeon-holes them into giving a one-word answer and may miss the point they were trying to make.
A better question could be, “How can I support you in navigating this friendship?” or “What would you like to see change in your friendship?” These types of questions are more helpful because they give the speaker the opportunity to elaborate, clarify their message, and communicate that you are interested in what they’re saying.
A final technique to engage in active listening is validation. Even if you don’t agree with everything a person is saying, you can still validate something. In fact, validation is often the most important when you don’t agree with a person at all or when you are in the middle of an argument. You may have to search for it, but there is something valid in what they’re communicating.
Validation is important because it promotes empathy, understanding, and respect. It makes the other person feel heard and valued. Oftentimes, even if you have a difficult time validating what the person is saying, you will likely be able to validate their emotions.
For example, if a coworker is telling you how unfair your boss is, you may have a hard time validating their opinions if you don’t think your boss is unfair at all. Instead, you can validate your coworker’s feelings. You can say, “It sounds like you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at work lately. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
Communication is an enormous topic, and there are numerous skills and strategies to learn and implement depending on situations, relationships, contexts, personalities, and a number of other factors.
A good starting point is to pay attention to how you feel in various situations when you are communicating with others. When do you feel validated and understood? When do you feel disrespected or unheard? What interactions leave you feeling positive and what interactions leave you feeling frustrated?
Taking mental note of these can be helpful in several ways. First, you can work toward implementing the strategies that other people use that make you feel validated. For example, if you notice that you feel valued and supported when someone makes eye contact, nods, and reflects what you are saying, you can try using these same communication skills yourself.
Second, by increasing awareness of the things other people do that make you feel disrespected, you can work toward avoiding these things yourself. For example, if you notice that you feel frustrated when someone is constantly checking their phone while you’re speaking to them, you may feel motivated to intentionally put your phone away in future conversations.
Finally, paying attention to your interactions can also be a great starting point to know which relationships of yours are already utilizing healthy communication skills and which relationships have room for growth. Additionally, if you would like further support in this area, I invite you to reach out to myself or another counselor; we are here to support you.
“Sunset”, Courtesy of Harli Marten, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Young People”, Courtesy of Alexis Brown, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Girl Talk”, Courtesy of Gradikaa, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “In the Moment”, Courtesy of Trung Thanh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License