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Is Your Communication Style Harming Your Relationships?

Have you ever been in conversation with a loved one and found it impossible to really, truly communicate? Perhaps no matter how carefully you tried to explain your point of view, the whole conversation seemed to go off the rails in a series of misses. Perhaps you walked away from the conversation feeling bad about the contact you just had. Your unease could have something to do with one of the four communication styles you learned in childhood.

Communication styles fall into four major categories: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. At any given time, we are all operating within the realm of one of these categories. When two or more people communicate any way other than assertively, there's a good chance of communication going awry.

We learn how to communicate through what is modeled for us in our early relationships with family, peers, our community, and even the media. Unfortunately, not all of us learned healthy, assertive means of communication. Instead, we may have learned ways of communicating that helped us adapt to whatever system we grew up in. But now, the communication styles that served us so well back then may be stifling our current relationships, preventing intimacy, closeness, and the authentically healthy connections we crave.

Let's explore these four communication styles and reflect on the patterns of communication you see in yourself and your loved ones. Knowledge and reflection can help you employ healthier communication tools in your relationships.

The four communication types

Passive

What it is: A passive communicator avoids naming and asserting their needs, wants, boundaries, and personal rights. They defer to others or prioritize taking care of others in order to "maintain the peace."

What it's characterized by: Passive communication may be characterized by poor eye contact, slumped posture, deferential treatment of others, self dismissal, self put-downs, laughing when expressing anger, speaking softly or apologetically, or dismissing one's own stance in conversation.

How it might look in practice:

Person A to B: She said I'm ruining your relationship with her. Is that true?

Person B: (avoiding eye contact with Person A) Well, um, you know – it's just that – you know things are different, but they're fine. Really they are. We're all good. Seriously. It's like, different, but you know, that's just the way things are, right? Seriously, it's all good. It really doesn't matter.

The upside and the downside: The upside of a passive communication style is that it can make you less of a "target" in communication and conflict. By deferring to others or not stepping forward in conversation, you can sometimes avoid being targeted or scrutinized. (In fact, you might gain the protection of others sometimes.) This can lead to a short-term reduction in anxiety. The downside is that you don't stand up for your own needs, wants, and opinions. You often feel "walked over," and you may harbor resentment about this later on. Further, your self-esteem suffers.

Aggressive

What it is: An aggressive communicator expresses their needs, wants, opinions, and rights in a way that crosses the boundaries of others.

What it's characterized by: Aggressive communication may be characterized by interrupting others, exhibiting low frustration tolerance, attacking others verbally, striding around or leaving the place of conversation, crossing arms, sneering, speaking or yelling loudly, pointing fingers, blaming others, or expressing opinions as fact.

How it might look in practice:

Person C to D: (yelling and pointing finger) You've got to be kidding me! You did that same thing to me, too! You're being a real hypocrite here tonight for accusing her of that very thing! You better remember that next time before you accuse someone.

The upside and the downside: The upside of an aggressive communication style is that you communicate your point and feel heard in conversation. This may be achieved by talking loudly, taking up lots of physical space, or dominating conversations. Aggressive communicators often feel less vulnerable and experience tension release when they act aggressively. The downside is that this style of communication can hurt and alienate others, cutting you off from the connections you crave. Further, you may experience feelings of shame and guilt after an outburst.

Passive-aggressive

What it is: A passive-aggressive communicator seems to act appropriately on the surface, but they are actually speaking in subtly hostile ways that cross the boundaries of others. This is done to manipulate or gain control of a situation without dealing directly with the object of their resentment or frustration.

What it's characterized by: Passive-aggressive communication may be characterized by shaming, blaming, criticism, "you" statements versus "I" statements, a hostile attitude, masked anger, sarcasm, a stance of superiority, the dismissal of others' experiences, resentment, or a disconnect between what a person says and what they do.

How it might look in practice:

Person D to Person A: I'm not mad, but you should really rethink the way you act. You should know better than that. I mean, it's just so sad how you've gotten between their relationship. You should know better than that.

The upside and the downside: The upside of a passive-aggressive communication style is that it lets you exert control via subtle shaming and relational manipulation without the "risk" of a direct confrontation. It's a communication style that, on the surface, appears less hostile than a loud, aggressive communication style. Unfortunately, the downside is the same as that of the aggressive communication style. It can alienate others and drive them to resent you, barring you from the interpersonal connections you crave. Further, this style prevents you from taking responsibility for yourself, diminishing self-esteem in the long run.

Assertive

What it is: An assertive communicator clearly states their needs and wants and advocates for their rights in an open, honest way that respects others' boundaries. They welcome negotiation and the influence of others.

What it's characterized by: Assertive communication may be characterized by the use of "I feel" statements; listening without interrupting; speaking in a clear and calm tone; stating needs and wants clearly, appropriately, and respectfully; comfortable eye contact; open body language; and a willingness to explore solutions together.

How it might look in practice:

Person A to Person D: I'm feeling frustrated and sad and want to feel close to you, but it seems like you don't care about me. Is that true? Do you care about me?

The upside and the downside: The upside of an assertive communication style is that it's a self-responsible form of connecting with others in a way that honors you and the other person's needs, wants, and boundaries. Practicing assertive communication bolsters self-esteem and improves your chance of getting what you want and need. The downside is that clear, direct communication has its risks. Your needs and wants may not be fulfilled by others, and your assertive style may be seen as threatening or mislabeled as aggressive by those accustomed to passive or passive-aggressive communication styles.

Maybe it goes without saying, but we should aim to speak with an assertive communication style 99% of the time.

Assertive communication allows us to take self-responsibility, state our needs and wants, hear the needs and wants of others, and ideally, reach a place of compromise, understanding, and compassion with one another.

If you grew up without an assertive communication model, it may feel alien or awkward to begin practicing this. The good news is that learning healthier ways of communicating is SO doable and can be supported through work with a skilled therapist or by surrounding yourself with relationally healthy, assertive communicators, whether friends, colleagues, or mentors.

We've explored quite a few ideas that may help you begin to communicate more assertively. I'd like to invite you to consider what you know about your communication type:

  • Which of these four communication styles feels most familiar?
  • What do you know about how your childhood environment influenced your communication style? As a child, how did you adapt your communication style to fit in and feel safe and accepted by family and friends?
  • If speaking assertively feels foreign to you, can you think of character models (real or fictional) who do speak assertively?
  • Who is one safe person in your life with whom you can practice speaking assertively with this week?
  • See you later!
To learn more about the characteristics of these communication styles, I heartily recommend checking out this brief from Dulwich College Suzhou.