Why does communication seem to work beautifully at times and fail miserably at others?
When communication breaks down, it’s often because the patterns and habits of how we communicate — our communication styles — get in the way.
Communication styles are the broad ways in which people tend to communicate with others. There are four main communication styles: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, and assertive.
Understanding different communication styles can radically improve the quality of your relationships. That’s because your level of skill in navigating difficult conversations depends on your ability to connect.
And if you’re working to develop stronger leadership characteristics, better communication plays a key role in shaping a positive culture within your office, home, classroom, and community.
Read on to assess which of the four communication styles you tend to use — and learn to communicate more effectively in every interaction.
Communication styles and connection
Our communication styles have the power to build meaningful connections, a crucial aspect of success in any area of life. Here are just a few reasons why we need to connect:
- Stong, stable interpersonal connections have a positive impact on physical and mental health, while poor social connection has ill effects on well-being.
- Those who feel connected to others have lower rates of depression and anxiety.
- People with meaningful connections live longer.
- Good communication skills and the ability to connect with others directly correlates with career success and job performance.
- Effective communication style builds a strong, healthy family environment.
Connection requires conversation, but as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, breakdowns in communication happen. We say something that suddenly sends people running for the hills, hiding under their beds, or ready to start a fight.
Meanwhile, other interactions leave us confused and uncertain, like we missed the mark in trying to convey our thoughts and emotions in words.
Then those magical moments happen when our interactions bring us closer to one another. We feel mutually understood, recognized, and respected.
Meaningful connection is what life’s all about. When we get it right, it’s a game-changer.
Behavior Traits Influence Different Communication Styles
Science sheds light on exactly what happens during human interaction. The Social and Neuro Sciences, just to name two, have shown us:
- Over time, people develop relatively stable behavior patterns.
- People form immediate impressions about others based on verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
- The way people behave toward one another is determined by their perceptions of each other.
- The most important dimensions of human behavior are assertiveness and responsiveness.
Our behavioral patterns become habitual over time, and may not match our evolving thoughts and emotions. As a result:
What we say doesn’t always align with what we mean.
Our communication habits often don’t reflect our dynamic thoughts and emotions, giving others the wrong impression of what we want to communicate. These habits affect the way others perceive and respond to us during interactions.
At the same time, we also judge the habitual behaviors of others and fail to understand what they want to convey. This process leads to gaps in understanding what another person means. And it happens quite often.
In her book, Conversational Intelligence®, Judith E. Glaser explains that 9 out of 10 conversations miss the mark. Meaning, we have an intention when we speak, but our style, our patterns, and perceptions get in the way of the other person picking it up.
So how do we ensure what we say aligns with what we mean?
Let’s take a closer look at understanding the basic four communication styles, and which one to practice for better conversations.
The 4 Communication Styles
People develop verbal and nonverbal behavioral patterns that, over time, become pretty stable. These habits influence how we communicate.
Although it’s possible to learn and practice different patterns, the communication styles that most people habitually use are:
People who speak in a passive manner have difficulty expressing themselves and tend to give in to others. Failure to express thoughts and emotions often leads to miscommunication and built-up anger or resentment.
You can recognize a passive communicator with the following behaviors:
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Inability to say no
- Go with the flow type attitude
- Poor posture
You may recognize passive communication through phrases like:
- “It doesn’t matter that much.”
- “I just want everyone to get along.”
Aggressive communication takes things to the other side of the spectrum. People who rely on this communication style in the workplace, at home, or among friends tend to dominate the conversation. They issue commands and ask questions rudely while failing to listen to others.
It’s always “me, me, me.”
In positions of authority, they may be more of a boss vs a leader.
You can recognize an aggressive communicator with the following behaviors:
- Talks over other people
- Poor listening, interrupts frequently
- Controlling or demanding
- Points fingers
- Stares and glares intensely
- Criticizes, intimidates, or threatens others
You may recognize aggressive communication through phrases like:
- “It’s my way or the highway.”
- “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
- “Because I said so.”
- “I’m entitled.”
Passive-aggressive communication seems passive on the surface but reveals a hidden resentment that comes through in subtle, indirect ways.
You can recognize passive-aggressive communication with the following behaviors:
- Frequent sarcasm
- Words don’t align with actions
- Facial expressions don’t match words
- Difficulty acknowledging emotions
You may recognize passive-aggressive communication through phrases like:
- “Fine, whatever.”
- After saying something rude, sarcastic, or damaging, “I was only joking.”
The assertive style of communication offers an effective and healthy way to express yourself. It encourages open, honest dialogue while still considering the needs of others.
You can recognize assertive communication with the following behaviors:
- The ability to express desires and needs with confidence
- Encourages balanced conversations in which both people have a chance to speak
- The use of “I” statements (ex: I feel frustrated when people show up late.)
- The ability to say no
- Maintains good eye contact
You may recognize assertive communication through phrases like:
- “I am responsible for my own happiness.”
- “I respect the needs and opinions of others.”
- “We all have the right to express ourselves respectfully and honestly.”
You can see why the first three communication styles could cause problems when trying to build relationships. Failing to listen to others (aggressive), shying away from conflict (passive-aggressive), or the fear of expressing ourselves (passive) prevents effective communication.
Communication styles are fluid. You may rely on an aggressive approach with family members but speak more passively with work colleagues. Communication styles also shift and change over time as we grow and learn from life experiences.
Using our words is one thing, having the impact we intend, well that takes skill and practice…lots of practice.
The good news is that communication is a skill that can be learned and improved.
When you find yourself falling into aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive patterns, it’s time to learn a new communication style to create healthier interactions. Although it takes time, you can learn to recognize your communication tendencies and adjust your patterns.
Assertive communication fosters an environment that allows both the speaker and listener to express themselves openly and respectfully. It requires being open, honest, and direct — but not aggressive.
Assertiveness helps get your message across in a palatable way, without attacking or disregarding your conversation partner.
Try these conversational techniques to communicate more assertively:
- Express needs and wants with confidence
- Take ownership by using “I” statements (For example, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my questions because it makes me feel unimportant.”)
- Maintain comfortable eye contact
- Listen when the other person is speaking
- Learn how to say “no”
It also helps to know the different communication styles so you can recognize when someone uses them. Understanding the patterns enables you to decode what people mean, and decide how to best respond.
For example, if someone speaks in a passive-aggressive manner, you can pull them aside and ask, “Is everything okay? I sensed that something might be wrong.” This allows the person to open up and feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts rather than lashing out anger or frustration.
Now, let’s take things a step further toward improving communication style through self-awareness.
How To Improve Communication Style: Know Thyself
Words often fall short in accurately describing abstract emotions and dynamic thought patterns.
I frequently play a game with business clients to illustrate the limitations of language. Here’s how it works:
- I ask everyone to jot down a few notes regarding what comes to their mind when I say one simple word.
- I ask the group to not say anything, just jot down the first image or idea that comes to mind.
- Then I say: Here’s the word – Holiday!
- We go around the room, each person describing what their mind’s eye conjured up when they heard Holiday.
After 18 years of using this exercise, not once have two people come up with the very same image.
We use words all the time to describe abstract, intangible things. We ascribe meaning to the words, the sequence, and the timing to describe what stirs within us. But our inner processings, feelings, thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, and so much more remain invisible.
It’s difficult to grasp these concepts, let alone express them clearly. This is why it becomes so important to know ourselves first before we can express what we think and feel to others.
Fortunately, self-assessment tools and personality indicators like the DISC profile or emotional unavailability chart can help you better understand yourself.
The DISC Model
The first distinction to make when determining your communication style starts with how you make decisions. The DISC profile provides an unbiased personality assessment tool that outlines human behavioral patterns. Over two million people have taken this communication style quiz.
Here’s how it works:
The DISC model consists of four quadrants, corresponding to the letters D-I-S-C:
- Dominance/Driver: Emphasizes results and the bottom line.
- Influence/Inspirational: Emphasizes relationships and influencing or persuading others.
- Steadiness: Emphasizes cooperation, honesty, and reliability.
- Conscientiousness/Contemplative: Emphasizes competence, quality, and expertise.
The DISC profile assessment teaches you a great deal about yourself. Your social style indicates strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for greatness. It can also help you identify your biases, blind-spots, and unfulfilled needs, which often show up as bad behavior.
These types of communication style assessment tools develop self-awareness, a key attribute in personal development, healthy relationships, and effective communication skills.
The Link Between Communication Style and Success
“To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversation.”
Conversational Intelligence® by Judith Glaser
Excellent communication skills run hand-in-hand with success.
When we reflect on the successful people we know, two characteristics commonly show up. First, they have a sense of self-awareness and comfort being within their own skin, and a confidence in their sense of their purpose in life.
Second, they often have an above-average means of relating to other people, be that the ability to connect, set people at ease, and communicate in a way that encourages trust.
Now that you understand the four styles, it’s time to develop self-awareness and uncover your behavioral tendencies and personal needs. Then, employing assertive communication behaviors, start expressing needs and wants confidently.
Whether your goals relate to your job, health, family, or finances, you’ll never get what you want without learning to communicate. Effective communication doesn’t mean talking the loudest, getting the last word, or avoiding conflict.
Powerful communication means understanding your needs and learning how to express them clearly — while also valuing the messages you receive from others.
Better communication can help you change your life.
Start practicing better communication today to improve relationships, encourage mutual success, and build trust.