Monitor your communication style

Understanding why you use assertive, aggressive, passive and passive-aggressive communication styles can help you recognize your underlying emotions. This is particularly important for difficult conversations. 

We all use these 4 communication styles for our own reasons. As you read through the following, try to identify when you’re most likely to use each of them. For example, you might use passive-aggressive communication when you feel your opinion is being dismissed. You may use passive communication when you feel whatever you say is being used against you. You might use aggressive communication when you feel attacked. You might use assertive communication when you feel confident and comfortable. 

Assertive communication

Assertive communication involves expressing your own needs, desires, ideas and feelings while considering and respecting others’ needs. You aim for win-win situations by balancing your own and others’ rights. 

Assertive communication is open, straightforward and earnest. You communicate your message as clearly as possible without embedding any other underlying or hidden messages. 

Assertive communication can help you strengthen relationships, solve problems more effectively and reduce negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, guilt or fear.

One key to communicating assertively is to use “I” statements when talking to others: “I feel frustrated when you’re distracted when I’m talking. I don’t like starting over again and repeating myself.” This type of statement shows you’re taking ownership of your feelings and behaviours and aren’t blaming others. This can make your feedback easier to accept.

Communicating assertively means you:

  • Feel comfortable and self-assured
  • Speak in a calm, clear and well-modulated voice
  • Show interest and sincerity by keeping eye contact, smiling and nodding your head (as appropriate)
  • Maintain an open and relaxed posture
  • Communicate your feelings and needs appropriately and respectfully
  • Communicate respect for others
  • Ask for what you want/need instead of demanding it
  • Ask questions in order to hear other people’s feelings and needs
  • Listen to other people’s points of view (without interrupting)
  • Say “no” in a productive and respectful way

In contrast, aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive communication styles are more likely to trigger a negative response. 

Aggressive communication

With aggressive communication, you express your own needs, desires, ideas and feelings without considering and respecting others’ needs. You advocate for your own interests at the expense of others, attempting to use forceful communication to subdue and suppress contrasting viewpoints.

Aggressive communication often involves “you” statements. Other people may see these statements as an attack on them, rather than an effective expression of a need. For example, stating “You’re never on time” instead of “I need you to be on time.” When you communicate in an aggressive manner, others may see you as egoistic and unwilling to make compromises.

Communicating aggressively may mean you:

  • Feel attacked or threatened
  • Speak in a loud, bossy and demanding voice
  • Have piercing eye contact
  • Maintain an overbearing posture
  • Intimidate others by blaming, intimidating, criticizing, threatening or attacking them
  • Act impulsively or rudely 
  • Are easily frustrated
  • Demand what you want or need rather than discussing it
  • Rarely ask questions, staying focused on your own needs and goals
  • Don’t listen well to the other person
  • Interrupt other people frequently
  • Are unwilling to accept “no” or make compromises

Passive communication

Passive communication happens when you don’t express your own needs, desires, ideas and feelings. You simply don’t stand up for yourself.

Communicating passively may mean you:

  • Feel that what you say will be dismissed or ridiculed
  • Speak in an overly apologetic or submissive manner
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Have a slumped or contracted body posture
  • Hold back on stating your feelings and needs
  • Give in to other people, ignoring your own needs
  • Do what you’re asked regardless of how you feel about it
  • Are unable to say “no” when asked for a favour
  • Rarely ask other people for help

Passive-aggressive communication

Passive-aggressive communication is a combination of the above two styles. It involves being passive in the way you express your needs, desires, ideas and feelings, but being aggressive in your underlying intent.

Communicating passive-aggressively often involves not speaking your truth, but rather trying to convey it with ambiguous actions and comments that others may interpret as disrespectful or annoying. 

When behaving passive-aggressively, for example, you may avoid speaking directly about your concerns and express dissatisfaction through your behaviours in a way that others may see as manipulative.

Communicating passive-aggressively may mean you:

  • Feel unsafe to say what you really mean
  • Speak sarcastically
  • Use non-verbal behaviours, such as sighing and eye-rolling
  • Use facial expressions and body language that don’t show how you feel, such as smiling when you’re upset
  • Avoid dealing directly with a disruptive issue, like denying there’s a problem or muttering to yourself rather than confronting the person
  • Act deceptively, such as appearing co-operative but acting uncooperatively
  • Act out in a subtle, indirect way, such as sabotaging another person to get even

It’s natural for everyone to communicate aggressively, passively, and passive-aggressively. But each of these communication styles risk eliciting negative reactions from others. While assertive communication techniques cannot always guarantee positive reactions, they are usually more effective in the long run. 

Communication is affected in part by the level of trust others have in your ability to lead. This trust includes faith in your character,  integrity and competence. Where trust is strong, small errors in communication may be overlooked or forgiven. Where trust is absent, even an innocent comment may be taken out of context and seen as threatening or disrespectful.