The 5 Communication Styles Explained (& How to Improve Yours)

How many of us have had managers or colleagues that – no matter how hard we tried – we just couldn’t get along with? 

If you’ve ever wondered why you click with some people and not with others, it’s invariably down to communication styles. 

Our verbal and non-verbal behavioural habits develop over time and become ingrained in our personality. 

This leads us to favour one of five specific communication styles, as we explain here.


The importance of effective communication

Effective communication reduces team friction, improves productivity and saves huge amounts of time. It enhances company culture and builds better working relationships. Put simply, the impact of effective communication can be felt throughout every key deliverable in a company.

Becoming a better communicator can improve virtually every aspect of your life (career, family, relationships, friendships). 

Feeling connected can lower depression and help you to live longer, while skilful communicators tend to perform better professionally and excel in leadership roles.

Gaining a deeper understanding of your own communication style and those around you can give you the tools you need to develop more meaningful connections. 

Let’s take a closer look at the five most common communication styles.

The 5 communication styles

Everyone has their own unique communication style. But most people will fall into one of the five most common types. 

Having a better understanding of your own communication style gives you a strong foundation to work with.

It will also explain why you behave in certain ways and why some people are easier to communicate with than others. 

It’s important to note that your communication style isn’t fixed, you’ll probably find synergies across several styles. You may also notice that you adapt your communication style to the situation or person you’re talking to. This is perfectly natural and actually really quite useful. 

Sticking rigidly to one style of communication isn’t always helpful or useful. Especially if that communication style doesn’t work well with the person you’re communicating with.

1. Assertive

Assertiveness can sometimes be confused with aggression. 

But this is way off the mark. 

Because, whereas an aggressive communication style (more on this later) can be overbearing, an assertive communication style embraces a two-way dialogue. 

The hallmark of an assertive communicator is the ability to express their needs and ideas clearly, whilst actively listening to the thoughts and feelings of those around them to find a compromise. 

Assertive communicators are both self-confident and self-aware. 

They know their mind, as well as their needs, which they’ll share in a straightforward, no-nonsense style. Someone who naturally favours an assertive communication style takes ownership of their thoughts and actions, using ‘I’ statements. 

For example, ‘I feel as though this project could have been delivered more effectively’. 

An assertive communication style is often touted as the most effective, especially in a business environment.

How to be a more assertive communicator

  • Speak with confidence. If you’re confident in your opinions, ideas, and suggestions, your colleagues and clients will be too. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, be kind to yourself and practise, practise, practise!
  • Look for the compromise. Try to be considerate to the needs of those you talk to and actively listen to what they say. You’ll need to exercise a degree of empathy and sensitivity to find workable solutions for everyone.
  • Don’t mince your words. Assertive communicators rarely use non-committal verbs like ‘should’ or ‘could’. They use ‘will’ instead. ‘I will deliver this project’ is far more affirmative than ‘I could deliver this project’. 

How to work with an assertive communicator

  • Canvas their opinion. Someone with an assertive communication style will always tell you what they think, so be sure to ask them. Just don’t be dismissive if they’re critical, they might not be so forthcoming next time.
  • Bring solutions to the table. Remember that an assertive communicator thrives on interactive discussions. So bring solutions and opinions to the table to ensure you can reach a meaningful conclusion for all involved.
  • Let them say their bit. As we’ve established, assertive communicators know what they want and need. So give them space to convey their opinions and suggestions, then take their recommendations on board.

2. Aggressive

People with an aggressive communication style can come across as intimidating, hostile and critical. An aggressive communicator wants to ‘win’ every conversation they take part in, regardless of what others think or feel. 

They often speak in a loud voice and are unlikely to be sympathetic listeners. 

Aggressive communicators are also more likely to dish out orders (many become leaders) and phrase questions bluntly. This domineering, one-way style of communication can lead to viewpoints being overlooked because the method of delivery aggravates listeners.

The aggressive communication style is not particularly endearing and is best avoided in business. 

How to adjust your aggressive communication style

  • Be mindful of your body language. It’s common for aggressive communicators to use tone of voice, gestures and eye contact to make a point. Dial back your body language and your words will be better received.
  • Use your confidence wisely. Rather than using your self-assurance to steamroller others, actively listen to what they tell you. When a person feels heard they’re more likely to hear what you have to say.
  • Reframe your mindset. The point of a conversation isn’t to ‘win’ at all costs. It’s to have a two-way dialogue that reaches a mutually beneficial solution. When you think along these lines, you’ll see results.

How to work with an aggressive communicator

  • Be empathetic and supportive. Listen to what an aggressive communicator has to say and reflect their emotional response back to them to ensure they feel heard and supported.
  • Keep them on-topic. Ensure meetings and conversations are business-like and to the point. Keeping things matter of fact will ensure an aggressive communicator can’t veer into unpleasant areas of discussion.  
  • Accept who they are. It’s not easy working with someone who has an aggressive communication style. Try to accept them as they are and work with them rather than against them.

3. Passive

Passive communicators are also known as ‘people-pleasers’ or ‘submissive’ communicators.

In practice, people who exhibit this communication style often struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings. They’ll go to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

A passive communicator’s inability to express themself can often lead to anger, resentment and misunderstandings – both for them and their colleagues.

Often, passive communicators will defer to more assertive or aggressive counterparts. 

Their ideas can go unheard and they may take on more work than they can handle due to their inability to say ‘no’. 

But the passive communication style isn’t all bad. A passive communicator’s go-with-the-flow attitude can make for a harmonious team environment, providing a positive buffer for aggressive team members.

This communication style isn’t ideal for the individual or their team but will take time and patience to adjust.

How to adjust your passive communication style

  • Embrace the power of ‘no’. Being a people-pleaser can lead you to overface yourself with work. This can quickly lead to stress in the long run. Learning to say no more often can help create healthier boundaries.
  • Come up with a game plan. Consider speaking with your manager to find opportunities to practice your assertiveness. Practice exerting your opinions and contributing to discussions to boost your confidence.
  • Lean in to your diplomacy skills. Passive communicators are diplomats. The trick is not to compromise your own wishes and voice solutions that everyone in your team can benefit from – including you!

How to work with a passive communicator

  • Ask them direct questions. A passive communicator needs time and space to express themselves clearly and confidently. Asking them direct questions will give them the impetus they need to speak up.
  • Respect and value their ideas. Knowing how much effort it takes for a passive communicator to share ideas, it’s really important to respect their input. Consider their suggestions rather than dismissing them out of hand.
  • Don’t be confrontational. As we’ve learned, passive communicators shy away from confrontation. Try to keep your conversations solutions-focused because any hint of aggression or anger could lead them to shut down.

4. Passive-aggressive

As the name suggests, the passive-aggressive communication style combines elements of the passive and aggressive communication styles. 

The result is a toxic blend of someone who appears easy-going on the outside but is operating from a place of anger beneath the surface. 

A passive-aggressive communicator is unlikely to voice their discontent directly, but rather express it in subtler, more underhand ways.  

Like passive communicators, passive-aggressive communicators tend to avoid confrontational situations. 

Instead, they may act out in a variety of ways. For instance, they might be sarcastic, patronising, obstructive or vindictive. 

The inward frustrations of a passive-aggressive communicator can cause wider malaise within a team. 

This type of communication style is never appropriate in a business setting and requires support to overcome.

How to adjust your passive-aggressive communication style

  • Locate the root of your anger. Do you often feel unheard? Do you feel like your efforts go unheralded? Whatever your frustrations, try to identify them and address them with your manager.
  • Identify your objectives. Rather than treating conversations as a battle and participants as your enemies, try to bring solutions to the table. A more proactive communication style will be better received.
  • Control the controllables. They say life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. If you can react to daily situations with a positive attitude, your relationships will improve.

How to work with a passive-aggressive communicator

  • Don’t fight fire with fire. Resist the urge to respond with passive-aggressive behaviour yourself. Demonstrate the effectiveness of assertive communication by listening to their needs and finding a compromise.
  • Walk in their shoes. There’s often a reason why people behave in certain ways. Let’s say a colleague becomes passive-aggressive when there’s a deadline approaching. Be mindful of that and help them if possible.
  • Lead by example. A great way to diffuse situations with a passive-aggressive communicator is to reframe the conversation. Try rephrasing the message in a more assertive tone to illustrate a better approach.

5. Manipulative

The manipulative communication style is all about exerting influence in a controlling but deceitful manner. 

Manipulative communicators rarely express their needs and desires upfront. Instead, they’ll try to exert their will using layers of manipulation; often completely unbeknownst to the person they’re talking to. 

Manipulative communicators know what they want, the problem is they revert to deceitful tactics to achieve it.

Perhaps understandably, manipulative communicators can be unpopular with their colleagues. After all, although this communication style can be advantageous when dealing with disgruntled customers, if a fellow team member realises they’ve been manipulated they’re unlikely to trust or cooperate with this person again. 

A manipulative communicator should be encouraged to transition to a more assertive style to improve their relationships.

How to adjust your manipulative communication style

  • Be more direct. Practice expressing your wants and needs more directly. If you can be open and upfront, you’re likely to get a better response. Just be prepared to accept that you won’t always get your own way.
  • Leave emotions out of it. As you try to employ a more assertive communication style, don’t be tempted to slip back into using emotional language. Keep things factual and direct to find the best compromise.
  • Don’t expect change overnight. If your colleagues have been burnt by your manipulation in the past, they may not be immediately receptive to your efforts to change. Build their trust by remaining consistent at all times.

How to work with a manipulative communicator

  • Keep calm and carry on. It’s essential to show a manipulative communicator that you can’t be manipulated. Stay calm, patient and resolute to encourage them to use a more effective communication style.
  • Stick to the topic. It’s important to steer a manipulative communicator towards a more assertive communication style. Stay on topic and don’t allow them to subvert a conversation for their own agenda.
  • Flip the script. Rather than criticising a manipulative communicator, try reframing the conversation. Clarify their needs and reiterate them clearly to show how they can better express themselves. 

Summary

If you spend your life trying to avoid conflict, win conversations, or manipulate colleagues and customers, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that these methods often fall on deaf ears. 

But we’ve got good news for you: people rarely fall neatly into one of these communication styles. We’re normally a combination, which means we’re adaptable and can change our styles.

Now you know a bit more about the main communication styles you can make a conscious effort to be more assertive. Taking small but meaningful steps to adapt your approach can promote better relationships – both in the workplace and your personal life.

Effective communication often makes for strong leadership. If you enjoyed this article, why not find out more about common leadership styles to find out which category you fall into?

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