Communication styles are patterns of communication and interpersonal behavior that people tend to repeat across different social settings.
There are four types of communication styles:
Some sources even add a “manipulative” communication style, but that’s a different thing in our opinion, and passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive can all be manipulative.
For a quick overview:
Do you know what’s your current style of communication?
Albeit we use all of them at least some of the times, most people tend to mostly stick to one of them.
That is because most people tend to adopt the mindsets, values, and beliefs of a certain style of communication, and those mindsets keep them stuck there.
That’s why we will also be focusing on mindsets here.
But let’s go in order.
Here is a deeper visual chart of the different styles of communication:
Based on Randy Paterson work (Paterson, 2000)
Let’s now quickly review each style.
1. Passive Communication Style
The passive communication style also referred to as “submissive”, has often been linked to the symbolism of a doormat.
At least in the most extremes of the passive forms, this symbolism is correct. Since the passive communication style enforces no boundaries, it allows others to “walk all over”.
Of course, not everyone is going to walk all over an overly passive individual. Not everyone is looking to advantage of others, after all.
But, alas, some people are. And some people will walk all over the passive.
And that puts the passive communicator at risk.
How about an example of a passive communication style?
A video speaks more than a thousand words:
Aggressive: look Jerry, you’re not selling me a damn car. It’s my show here. That’s that
Passive: (puts his head down, looks up to the second highest authority in the room)
The passive man is often passive in an effort to avoid conflict.
- Gives in to unreasonable demands
Another weekend in the office for extra unpaid work? Uhmm, OK. No, no trouble at all.
- Goes along with the crowd
You all want to go to McDonald’s? I don’t mind that I’m on diet, it sounds great
- Withholds opinion out of fear
What do I think of cannabis liberalization? What do you guys think about it? All stoner should be imprisoned for life? Yeah, I can agree with that…
- Withhold any feedback that might come across as criticism
Yeah, I had to redo your budget report, but I don’t mind some Excel work, you’re doing fine
Oh, I’m sorry I was standing here, you bumped into me, and that I spilled my full glass of wine over my new suit
From a social exchange point of view, with their over-apologies passive people end up inflating their own social debt.
Apologizing if you’ve done a mistake is what you should do. But avoid over-apologizing if you’ve done nothing wrong, or if someone else is at fault.
PRO Tip: If you have a tendency for over-apologizing, a quick fix can be to switch from “sorry” to “excuse me”.
- Never take proper credit, always minimize one’s own contribution
Nah, it was OK, I was already awake at 3am, so no problem getting dressing and come pick you up
From a social exchange point of view, passive people struggle mightily to collect their fair social credits and devalue their own contributions.
This an important information for us since our goal is to make you successful socially, and at life:
Passive individuals struggle to enter win-win exchanges and are more likely to remain stuck in win-lose exchanges, as well as in manipulative relationships
2. Passive-Aggressive Communication Style
The passive-aggressive types mix elements of both the passive and aggressive style.
They are as afraid of standing up for themselves as the passive type, but have the same drive to control as the aggressive type.
The result is a mix:
- Capitulation out of fear
- Followed by unexpressed anger
- Followed by undercover aggression and sabotage to get it their way, or to exact revenge
Some of the traits and behaviors of passive-aggressives:
- Takes Everything Negatively
Passive-aggressives like to take things negatively (Williams, 2020).
Because it justifies their repressed anger and aggression.
Taking things and people negatively makes it easy for them to justify their covert operations.
This is also why you want to avoid passive-aggression at all costs: it poisons your interactions as well as your mood.
- Fight Without Fighting
Passive-aggressive can be quite twisted in their competition.
For example, they might see you’re about to commit a mistake, but don’t tell you anything because they think that your loss is their win.
Or they might be the coworkers who “forget” to CC you in the customer email, so that you don’t stay in the loop.
- Do Things Improperly
They fear saying no, so they say yes.
But they still want to find a way out.
They half-ass their work.
- Are Non-Committal
Passive-aggressive individuals are masters of ambiguity.
It can be hard to pinpoint whether they’re telling you yes or no, and it’s often premeditated.
That way, they keep their options open to do whatever they please.
Afraid of talking straight, they’re also foggy and noncommittal with their requests.
You know, “you don’t have to if you don’t want to”, they’ll say. But if you don’t, they’ll sulk.
- Leave “hints” instead of talking directly
Instead of asking you to do your part of the cleaning, they might clean only their side of the flat.
You know, “sending you a message”, instead of speaking up.
- Cuss & threaten, but murmuring
The passive-aggressive might be seething with anger, but:
- Fears of his own anger
- Fears he will be punished for honest expression
- Fears the confrontation, or the consequences of engaging and “losing”
But when the anger is strong, it seeps out at the seams. Save for hiding it again behind a fake smile if confronted.
See an example here:
Him: (irritated and fighting his own irritation, moving towards aggression) Ma’am! I answered your question
Her: I’m sorry sir?
Him: (moves back to passive, tries to smile more) Ma’am, I answered you question. I answered. I’m cooperating here, and there is no… (mutters)
Her: (going on the offensive) Sir, you have no call in getting snippy with me, I’m just doing my job here
Him: (retreats even further)
She was also not being fully assertive.
Especially the “just” part, it’s a defensive statement, and she had no reason to be defensive, she has all the rights to keep questioning.
A more assertive response from her would have been:
Assertive Option: I understand this is frustrating but I am investigating a crime, and I intend to do it properly. And I need you to cooperate with me sir
If she wanted to make her statement even higher power and hold an even stronger frame, she could have added some “higher values”, for example:
I owe to the victim and to his family (= you’re being a selfish, low-quality citizen for stopping justice)
But it wasn’t strictly necessary here.
Power… At High Cost
It might sound surprising but…
Some passive-aggressive can get power.
They can get some power because many passive-aggressives crave power.
So the more Machiavellian ones can find sneakier and more indirect ways to win.
Problem is, of course, sneaky and undercover ways only get you so far.
And “so far” rarely is to the top.
The passive-aggressive style at very high costs, including:
- Personal costs: diminished self-esteem, repressed anger, and difficulty in developing strong relationships based on honesty
- Status / social power costs: people eventually catch up to the sneakiness of the passive-aggressive
- Reputational costs: when the passive-aggressive resorts to sabotage and underhanded tactics, he gets a reputation for being unreliable, disorganized, or inconsiderate
People might never be able to point out a few clear examples and say “this is what I’m talking about”, but their general opinion of the passive-aggressive declines.
Avoiding The “Too Nice Passive-Aggressive”
Sometimes you behave passive-aggressive even when you’re not a passive-aggressive type.
Well, since anger and enmity are frowned upon, people can sometimes over-deny those feelings.
But then, when they show up, they will look like hypocrites.
Look at this scene for example:
Rossi: It sounds to me a bit strange, because in reality, we don’t have any problem (and then refuses to shake hands with the man he “has no problem with”)
There is an overlap between power and assertiveness, but they’re not the same.
Rossi is high-power in the video above, but lacks assertiveness and falls into the passive-aggressive trap.
Marquez is also Machiavellian to look so friendly and candid, as if to say “I’d love to be friends, I’m good, it’s him who doesn’t want”.
That contrast makes Rossi seem unjustifiably angry and vindicative.
So, what was a better alternative for Rossi?
Think about it please.
And later you will see a very similar situation, but with an assertive approach.
A few tips:
- Remain calm
Passive-aggressive individuals use covert-aggression to attack others.
If you overreact, you can come across as overly-aggressive or thin-skinned, and you lose social status.
For handling covert-aggression, please see “how to handle micro-aggressions“.
- Remove them from your team
If you are in a power or leadership position, consider removing them.
Passive-aggressives are toxic employees per excellence.
Letting them fester means allowing them to go beyond your back spreading rumors and breeding malcontent in the team.
- Let them know, you know: go meta
This is a risky technique since passive-aggressive can end up hating you for showing them a better, higher power, and higher-quality way of interfacing with the world.
But in some situations, it’s a risk worth running.
- Pull them up
If you’re in a close relationship with a passive-aggressive, consider pulling them up into self-development.
Anyone can become less passive-aggressive and more assertive, and you might be able to help them.
3. Aggressive Communication Style
The aggressive commutation style seeks to dominate others without regard or respect for others’ well-being.
Aggression is a bit like that famous quote on defining porn.
Even if you’re not sure how to define it, you probably know it when you see it.
Aggressive behavior includes one or some of the following:
- Visible signs of anger
- Rude or disrespectful behavior (dismissive in the case of covert aggression)
- Visible signs of emotional turmoil (or the opposite with total icy detachment)
- Open and direct threats, even if delivered calmly
- Body language that suggests the possibility of an attack
- Physical shoving or pushing, or the threat of physical aggression
- Stand closer, or purposefully far away to communicate superiority or disgust
There are some use cases for aggression, as well as some situations in which it’s a good approach.
Indeed, from a point of view of effectiveness, aggression is better at getting things done than both passiveness and passive-aggression.
However, it comes at a rather heavy cost.
Most people don’t like being overpowered, and especially not the most talented, high-value, and high-quality ones.
These higher-quality folks will either try to overpower the aggressor, or they will quickly abandon him.
And that makes it hard for the aggressive type to be an effective leader, and especially hard to make him a good leader for a team of talented people with lots of options.
After all, why would anyone with options stick with an aggressive ahole that demeans them?
Ultimately, too high levels of aggression backfire both in personal life, and at work.
4. Assertive Communication Style
And here we finally come.
Assertiveness is relevant to power dynamics and social effectiveness because there is an overlap between “assertive” and “high-power”.
People who master assertion tend to come across as confident, high-power, and generally high-quality individuals who get things done.
And since they don’t overpower others, they also tend to develop strong long-term relationships, which enables them to develop win-win far more than aggressive individuals can.
- Boundaries: Having, maintaining, and enforcing personal boundaries of:
- Basic respect: expecting and demanding respectful behavior
- Privacy: declining to answer or discuss questions and topics that feel too personal or nosy
- Time: choosing what and when to do, not allowing others to “task” you without your full consent
- Personal freedoms: freedom of choice, of holding different opinions, etc.
- Timely and honest communication: assertive communication is timely, honest, precise, and often direct. It includes the communication of wants, needs, emotions, feelings, goals, and boundaries.
- Expecting and encouraging honest and direct communication: expecting, demanding, and/or encouraging direct and honest communication from others
- Standing behind one’s choices, opinions, & feelings: the assertive communicator acknowledges and stands behind his choices, opinions, and feelings
One of the biggest secrets of marrying assertion with power is this:
High-power assertion includes high-power vulnerability, such as admitting one’s own negative or antisocial feelings.
This is the “accepting one’s own dark side” we talked about in the social power module.
To understand this concept, let’s go back to our previous example.
Remember Rossi falling for the passive-aggressive trap earlier?
Rossi was being high-power, but he didn’t add the high-power vulnerability of admitting his negative feelings.
Compare now to this other approach.
Rossi and Lorenzo also had plenty of acrimony in their career.
But Lorenzo doesn’t hide and deny it.
His approach also includes The Power Moves basic strategies of power:
Interviewer: So in the past 2 years you’ve been like two old friends again..
Lorenzo: (after talking about Rossi as a great champion) No, I don’t think we are friends (states the truth, openly and frankly)
But the most important thing is to have respect, and I have huge respect for Vale, and I think he has the same for me (moves into a collaborative frame)
This is “high-power assertive”.
Rossi was high-power in the previous video example, but NOT assertive in admitting and standing behind his feelings.
And that made him come across as sneaky.
Lorenzo admits very candidly of not being friends with Rossi. All the while complimenting him and building him up.
The different styles differ in their:
- Openness to communication
- Respect towards others
Charting these two important variables, we can draw a quadrant:
While passive and passive-aggressive avoid communication, assertive individuals speak up.
And, crucial, they combine their communication with respect for themselves and for others.
- Early: speak early to avoid stewing
- Directly: state your needs and wants clearly and directly
- Respectfully: but with respect and consideration for others
Overcoming Poor Communication Beliefs
It’s your beliefs and mindsets that determine your behavior.
Beliefs holding you back from reaching assertiveness:
- “Dark” feelings such as anger and will to power are bad to have an even worse to show
This is what we’ve just seen with the video example.
What happens when people unconsciously hold this belief is that they deny their feelings of anger, disappointment, or resentment with words, but then act them out with actions and body language.
That makes them come across as hypocrites.
See an example from Ray Dalio, and read this good discussion on why some (some!) left-wing folks come across as hypocrites (hint: they don’t understand and accept their dark side).
- Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time
No, that’s aggression. Assertiveness is meant to put you on an equal footing with other people.
- Being assertive means being selfish
No, being assertive means being fair and high-power.
If anything, it means that you stop subordinating your interests.
- Other people can’t handle my assertiveness
That’s actually demeaning, to think of others as weak.
Many people, especially other high-quality people, actually love to deal with someone who is frank and honest.
And if some people find your assertiveness to be “too much”, then you can always calibrate and reduce the intensity.
- People should be more considerate
“Shoulds” are usually weak positions to be in.
What do you care what they should or shouldn’t do?
Act based on what they do, and what you want.
From an assertiveness point of view, when you hold this belief, you either don’t believe that you should tell them to act differently since they should know, or you believe that you must yell at them because they should know better and you have to set them straight.
- I’m afraid of being assertive and failing
You will fail.
And that’s great.
Fear of failure is associated with a fixed mindset and with fragile egos. You will learn how to overcome this mindset in the “Ultimate Power” ebook.
- I have to convince others
As a rule of thumb:
All the “I have to” put unneeded and often counterproductive pressure on you.
When you hold this belief, you either never start sharing your opinion, or you get angry when you cannot change other people’s minds.
You can always seek to persuade others, but you never “have to”.
Again, this goes back to basic mindsets and beliefs. A cognitive-behavioral therapy called REBT helps with this one (Ellis, 1988), more in “Ultimate Power”.
- I must look good, strong, and happy
This is about emotional assertion.
And it includes all acts of “concealing” emotions in order to look better to others.
It might be one of the major causes of male aggression, passive-aggression, as well as general communication breakdown.
Some women hold back their anger, and many men feel it’s not OK to admit their personal struggles or request (emotional) help.
So they deny their true feelings to others and to themselves and seek to have their needs met with aggression or covert-aggression.
Example of a family where everyone tries to look “strong” and happy. Result: total communication breakdown, and destruction of true intimacy and connection
Warning: this is not to say “parade your weakness”, wallow in self-pity, or to be always “vulnerable”.
Please read here for more on vulnerability:
Communication styles are patterns of behavior with which different people communicate and relate with others.
Learning to use and adapt the right communication style for the right situation is a crucial skill for social and life effectiveness.
As a general rule, the assertive communication style is the most effective, the most important to learn, and the style that people should use most often.