Confused by colleagues? Struggling to assert yourself at work? Here’s how to understand the different communication styles while also improving your own.
Why exactly do people behave this way at work? Are there deeper psychological causes? And how can you make sure that you’re not showing some of the same behaviours unawares?
In this guide to workplace communication styles, we’ll be looking at the four main ways of interacting with others. We will also look at how you can express yourself more effectively, plus explore the causes of problematic communication and what you can do about it.
It’s likely that you have already heard of the four main styles of communicating: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. And while all of us know that assertiveness is the ideal in most situations, enacting this can be easier said than done. In fact, you might have no idea where to start. This can be especially true if your childhood and life experiences have driven you into a pattern of expressing yourself in less direct ways.
So to begin with, let’s explore these four styles and their possible roots…
If you are a Passive communicator then you avoid communicating your needs to get them met. This means that you often don’t express your thoughts, preferences, opinions and feelings, often falling into patterns of compliance and people-pleasing instead. You might also fail to set healthy boundaries at work, for instance, around your workload or how people treat you. Plus you might also find it hard to stick up for yourself, negotiate to your advantage or address any underlying issues.
Whilst there might be an immediate positive effect of being ‘a martyr’, you might also feel anxious a lot, as if your life and career is out of your control. Feelings of confusion might be common for you, as you are in the habit of ignoring the internal compass of your emotions, instead focusing on what others want and need. You might harbour resentment towards colleagues and bosses as you give more than you really want to give, or just feel a little bit helpless or hopeless. You also could find yourself being manipulated and abused both in work and out of it as you find it difficult saying ‘no’.
What does it look like?: You tend to be silent or very quiet in meetings and might even dread speaking. When you do speak it is often apologetically, with poor eye contact and slumped posture. You tend to agree with others and avoid conflict, even if deep down you think that they’re wrong.
What causes passive communication?: This communicative style is often caused by low self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness. In childhood you might have been made to feel that expressing your needs, feelings or opinions was wrong or bad. You might also have been an ‘invisible child’ in your family dynamic. As a result, you never actually learned how to communicate openly, honestly or directly with others. You might also have a deep-seated belief that people will like you more if you stay passive, or at least won’t criticise or target you.
If you are an Aggressive communicator then you tend to dominate others to get your needs met, ignoring their needs, rights and boundaries if they get in the way of what you want. For this reason, you’re not great at conflict resolution or negotiation and instead use pressure and overbearing self-expression to achieve your aims. This can include blame, criticism and even intimidation. Whilst this might ensure that you get your way, it is often at the cost of relationships and can often result in feelings of guilt and shame afterwards.
What does it look like?: You tend to be demanding, speak loudly, with piercing eye contact and overbearing posture. You don’t listen well and often interrupt people. You can be confrontational and critical of others. You might often take a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude.
What causes aggressive communication?: This style of communication is often caused by low self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness. This might have been due to physical, mental or emotional abuse in childhood, causing you to (sometimes unconsciously) feel threatened by others in interactions. As a result you might overcompensate or overreact, showing controlling or aggressive behaviours in situations that don’t actually warrant it. This can often be due to an overestimation of threat and a fear of being dominated if you don’t get in there first.
If you are a Passive-Aggressive communicator, then you express anger and resentment in indirect ways in order to get your needs met. So for instance, you might outwardly agree with people who annoy you, while secretly sabotaging things behind the scenes. This means that you could seem cooperative and friendly on the surface, while consciously or subconsciously doing things to disrupt or delay tasks. You might also talk about people behind their back rather than resolving conflicts directly. Or you might feel that you are often passed over, ignored and underappreciated, or cheated out of work promotions and opportunities. Overall, you might have a cynical view of the world and other people’s motivations. You may also have a deep sense that your talents and potential have continuously been unrecognised.
What does it look like?:You might express anger and resentment indirectly, for instance through sarcasm or a patronising tone, backhanded compliments, gossip or insinuation. In meetings you might mutter to yourself beneath your breath, roll your eyes, or even smile on the surface while feeling irritated or enraged beneath. At times you can come across as bewildering, as you will seem to have understood the instructions for a task yet still somehow don’t complete it or miss the deadline. You might also withhold warmth or friendliness from colleagues who have annoyed you but when asked what’s wrong, simply say ‘I’m fine’.
What causes passive-aggressive communication?: Just like with passive and aggressive communicators, passive-aggression is caused by low self-esteem and a deep-seated sense of powerlessness. However, in your case, you learned to put on a front of being pleasant and obliging while concealing a simmering anger underneath. It is possible that in childhood, you had a domineering or intrusive parent who didn’t treat you as a separate person with your own distinct needs. Instead, you eventually became enmeshed with them and unable to express your boundaries. Your parents may also have taught you that feelings of anger were unacceptable.
As a result you learned to express frustration, rage and resentment in an indirect way, as this was safer than confronting your caregivers directly. And because you always had to hide your true self, you eventually became alienated from others in adulthood, living in a state of emotional isolation.
If you are an Assertive communicator, then you are able to communicate your needs respectfully and directly to get them met. Sometimes summarised as ‘Saying what you mean, meaning what you say and not saying it mean’, this tends to be the most effective style of communication. Overall, you are able to express your feelings, preferences and opinions in most situations.
This means that you are willing to stand up for your rights while also respecting the rights of others. You are also able to set healthy boundaries while being aware of other people’s boundaries as well. In general you feel good about yourself, have a sense of being in control of your life — by effectively advocating for what you want and need — and enjoy healthy connections with others. You are also willing to negotiate to resolve conflicts and create a space for others to express themselves.
What does it look like?: You listen well and while you don’t tend to interrupt, you also don’t let others dominate conversations or cross your boundaries. You make good eye contact and speak in a calm, respectful tone with relaxed, open body posture. You are able to express your needs clearly and directly, negotiating with others so that both parties get their needs met.
What causes an assertive communication style?: People with this communication style tend to have healthy self-esteem as well as respect for themselves and others. This is because they may have grown up in a home where their feelings, needs and opinions were consistently validated. They may have received messages that they matter and that other people matter too. They may also have watched their parents express themselves and resolve conflicts in a healthy and constructive way. However, that said, people can grow up in more difficult environments and still learn how to communicate assertively. It’s simply a skill and it’s never too late to learn.
Do you feel that you often default to non-assertive ways of interacting? If so, it’s worth remembering that communication styles tend to be deep-seated learned behaviours that actually made good sense when you first developed them.
So for instance, if you were made to feel in childhood that expressing your needs was inconvenient, then it would make sense to stop doing that and become more passive. Or if you were physically abused, then there may have been a point when reacting with aggression got your abuser to back off, causing you to see this behaviour as the best solution. Or if you had a controlling parent, then smiling in agreement while secretly sabotaging their demands might have been your only way of expressing pent up rage.
However, the passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive coping strategies that you developed as a child don’t usually serve you well in adulthood. In fact, they could even end up impairing your career, goals and relationships. For instance, you might find yourself being passed over for promotion, having regular conflicts with colleagues or developing a reputation for being ‘difficult’. You might also find that you often feel afraid, angry, frustrated, angry, resentful, envious, stressed, ashamed or ignored when dealing with people at work. They can also impact your physical health as needs and emotions are bottled up and not expressed.
In the end, non-assertive communication styles don’t help you to grow as a person or deepen your relationships with others. They just keep you recreating the painful situations of your past, over and over again. As a result, your negative beliefs about people are continuously reinforced, for instance, ‘Everyone always ignores me’ or ‘If I don’t take control, people will walk all over me’. Yet you might not realise that you yourself are unconsciously creating these dynamics, again and again.
However, change is much easier said than done. So if you feel that your style of expression is deep-seated and difficult to overcome, then seeing a therapist might help.
A supportive therapist can help you to explore the root causes of any communication challenges in your life, including learned behaviours, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and cultural or gender expectations. They can help you recognise the beliefs you hold about yourself and others that drive these communication styles. They can also help you to develop a more assertive way of expressing yourself at work, for instance by trying out roleplay scenarios together. Plus if you’re struggling with shame, regret or fractured relationships due to past communication challenges, then you can work through this too. And if your communication style is linked to traumatic experiences, then approaches like EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can be very effective.
Healthy communication is a skill, just like any other. And while your style might not change overnight, if you’re willing to put in the work then it is well worth it. Because you will find that both your relationships and self-esteem could totally transform, both in work and out of it. And once you know how to get your needs met in healthier ways, it might start to feel like the workplace is a much more supportive and encouraging place.
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