Have you ever been in conversation with your loved ones and just found it impossible to really, truly, communicate?
Like 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 and you all ended up feeling not-so-good about the contact you just had? It might 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 time, we are all operating from one of these types each time we come into contact with each other. When you get two or more people together who communicate other than assertively, there’s a very good chance of communication going awry.
You see, we learn how to communicate through what we’re modeled in our early relationships – with our families, peer groups, communities, and even the media. Unfortunately, not all of us were taught healthy, assertive communication growing up. Instead, we probably learned ways of communicating that helped us adapt to whatever system we grew up in, but now those same styles we learned (which may have served us so well back then!) may be getting in the way of our relationships today, preventing intimacy, closeness, and the real, authentically healthy connections we crave.
In today’s Sunday Comfort, I want to explore these four communication styles with you and invite you to reflect on which patterns of communication you see in yourself and your loved ones so that we can help you learn and practice healthier communication tools in your life if that’s what you need.
The Four Communication Types
- What this is: The passive type is a style of communication in which an individual avoids naming and asserting their honest needs, wants, boundaries, and personal rights and, instead, defer to others or prioritize trying to take care of others in conflict or conversation in order to “maintain the peace”.
- What it’s characterized by: Passive communication can be characterized by poor eye contact, slumped posture, deferential treatment of others, self-dismissal, self put-downs, laughing when expressing anger, tending to speak softly or apologetically, dismissing their own stance in conversations.
- How this might look in practice: Person A to B: “She said that I’m ruining your relationship with her, is that true?” Person B: (avoiding eye contact with Person A), “Well, uhm, 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? A passive communication style can make you less of a “target” in communication and conflict – by deferring to other people or by not stepping forward in conversation, you can sometimes avoid being targeted or focused on (in fact, it can sometimes let you be protected by others) which can lead to a reduction in anxiety or even protection by others in the short-term, but the downside is that you don’t stand up for your own needs, wants and opinions, may often feel “walked all over”, and harbor resentments about this later on, and may actually lead to a decrease in self-esteem.
- What this is: Aggressive communication is a type characterized by a person expressing their needs, wants, opinions and rights in a way that crosses the boundaries of others they are communicating with.
- What it’s characterized by: Aggressive communication can be characterized by interrupting others, having low frustration tolerance, attack response when threatened, striding around or leaving the place of conversation, crossing arms, sneering, spontaneous outbursts, speaking loudly (or yelling), pointing fingers, blaming words, opinions expressed as fact.
- How this might look in practice: Person C to D: (yelling and pointing finger) “You’ve got to be kidding me! You know what? You did that same thing to me, too! You did that too, Person D, and you’re being a real hypocrite here tonight for accusing her of that very thing! You’d better remember that next time before you accuse someone.”
- The upside and the downside: The upside? Aggressive communicators tend to take up space and get their point and view heard in conversation (whether by talking the most, talking loudly, or taking up space with their body), they get heard and aggressive communicators can often feel less vulnerable and experience relief of tension in acting aggressively. But the downside is that this style of communication can hurt and alienate people – keeping you away from the connection you actually crave and often after outbursts you can experience feelings of shame and guilt.
- What this is: Passive-aggressive communication is a style in which the person appears to be acting appropriately on the surface but is actually acting out and speaking in subtly hostile ways that cross the boundaries of those they are speaking to in order to control or manipulate the situation without dealing directly with the object of their resentment and frustration.
- What it’s characterized by: Passive-aggressive communication can be characterized by shaming, blaming, criticism, “you statements” versus “I statements”, hostile attitude, masked anger, sarcasm, taking a stance of superiority, dismissing another’s experience, resentment, disconnect between what a person says and what they do.
- How this 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? Passive-aggressive communication is a way of allowing the communicator to exert control via subtle shaming and relational manipulation but without the risk for them of assuming personal responsibility of more direct confrontation. It’s a communication style that’s less obviously hostile than the loud or big aggressive communicator, but the downside is the same – this style of communication can alienate people and drive them to resent you, keeping you away from the connection you actually crave and this style also keeps you from taking responsibility for yourself which can lead to an overall decrease in self-esteem in the long run.
- What this is: Assertive communication is a style where an individual clearly states their needs, wants, and advocates for their rights in an open and honest way that is respectful of other people’s boundaries, and furthermore is open to negotiation and influence by others.
- What it’s characterized by: Assertive communication can be characterized by the use of “I feel” statements, listening without interrupting, speaking in a clear and calm tone of voice adequate to the environment, stating needs and wants clearly, appropriately, and respectfully, eye contact, open body language, willingness to explore solutions together.
- How this 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? Assertive communication is 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 can lead to greater self-esteem and improve your chances of getting what you want and need out of life. The downside? There’s still risk in being assertive and clearly and directly communicating – you may not get your needs and wants to be met by those you communicate with, and your assertive style may be seen as threatening or even mislabeled as aggressive by people used to passive or passive-aggressive styles of communication.
If this sounds overwhelming or even a little bit alien – I totally get it. If you grew up without this being modeled or practiced, it will feel a little alien and awkward to begin practicing this (I speak from personal experience!) but the good news is that re-learning healthier ways of communicating is SO doable and can be supported through working with a skilled therapist or surrounding yourself with relationally healthy, assertive communicators (whether friends, colleagues, mentors).
My Invitation for You: We’ve covered a lot of material today and explored quite a few ideas that might be supportive for you in communicating more assertively. As we close today I’d like to invite you to consider what you know about your communication type:
- Which of these four types of communication is most familiar for you?
- What do you know about how your childhood environment influenced the way you communicated? How did you adapt your communication style to fit in or be safe or accepted by your family or friends?
- If speaking assertively is unfamiliar for you, can you think of models and examples (whether in real life or fictional) that do speak assertively?
- Who is one safe person in your life with who you can practice speaking assertively 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.