Effective communication is an essential component of any successful workplace. However, people communicate differently based on personality, culture, and upbringing. Understanding different styles of sharing information in the workplace and adapting to them can improve collaboration, increase productivity, and create a more positive work environment.
This blog explores different communication styles in the workplace, plus the benefits of understanding and adapting to them. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses, and recognising and working with them can foster better relationships and improve overall information exchange in the workplace. Here's a deep dive into the main four styles of communication (and the right way to handle each in your workplace):
1. Passive Communication Style
Passive communicators are the meekest of all on this list. They say nothing when someone hurts their feelings—for instance when talking to a boss or colleague whom they don't want to upset. Some are just humble because they are naturally non-confrontational. They tend to defer decisions to others to avoid tension and conflict.
One of the biggest challenges with passive communication is that negative emotions build up. Resentment piles up. And once the anger culminates, it explodes without warning. Because they hide their feelings from colleagues, resist confrontations, and fail to assert their thoughts, it's difficult for fellow workers to understand and support passive communicators. For this reason, misunderstandings are almost always inevitable.
Nevertheless, passive communication can be the safest option when a conflict in the workplace is likely to develop into violence. Common characteristics of these communicators include:
Difficulty maintaining eye contact when interacting
They are non-combative, so they hardly say no
They "go with the flow."
Poor body posture
Self-deprecating—they allow others to take control or make decisions even at the expense of their own personal rights
Examples of statements used by passive communicators include:
How to Deal With Passive Communicators in the Workplace
Passive communicators often yield to decisions and allow others to choose for them. You must be strategic when handling such people to help them become more assertive.
Because they are nonconfrontational, you need to be gentle. Raising your voice at them or getting angry will make them hide their feelings. Remember, they want peace and don't want to fight with anyone.
Understand that they don't speak much, may not express their true feelings and can quickly agree with anything, even if it's against their personal rights. The best approach is to be patient and persuasive. Ask for their opinions, and because they are more likely to be slow in sharing their thoughts and feelings, give them plenty of time to respond.
2. Aggressive Communication Style
Aggressive communicators are plain and direct—no sugarcoating the message or softening the blow when communicating. They express their rights, thoughts, and emotions without considering other people's feelings and perspectives.
Because of their blunt nature, these guys tend to be demanding, loud, and often finger-point. Additionally, their bossy trait means they demand respect from colleagues. This results in a likelihood of giving commands rather than making polite requests. When in leadership positions, their motto is typical, "my way or the highway," which discourages teamwork.
Since they rarely consider others, aggressive communicators struggle with long-term relationships. However, their commanding nature might make them result-driven leaders because they tend to get things done quickly and get people to respect them. Common characteristics of aggressive communicators:
Aggressive communication is not a great way to convey a message since declarative sentences make the recipient feel attacked, belittled, or worthless. Examples of phrases used in this direct communication style include:
"You're to blame."
"Your opinion doesn't matter."
"Get over it."
"You never get anything right."
"This is what you must do."
How to Deal with Aggressive Communicators in the Workplace
It can be challenging to know how to respond to a mean-spirited colleague. You may be tempted to react aggressively, hoping the person will stop. Some recipients automatically get defensive to fight back the aggression. But what's the right way to proceed when facing an inconsiderate, insensitive, or outright contemptuous aggressor in the workplace?
In that case, avoid getting into your feelings and base the conversation purely on facts. Focus on what can be done to resolve the issue at hand. As a result, you avoid becoming an aggressor yourself and prevent the situation from culminating.
But some people are simply a piece of work; they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to deal with. In such circumstances, the best thing is to withdraw from the situation and seek help from HR, especially if the victim feels bullied or harassed.
3. Passive-Aggressive Communication Style
One of the features of effective communication is "Say what you mean and mean what you say." Passive-aggressive communicators do the opposite; they exhibit two conflicting reactions.
On the one hand, they'll appear to agree with a decision or message. But on the other hand, they passively express their discontent, which makes their intention unclear. They are seemingly cooperative, but in the real sense, they are not.
Assume you're giving constructive feedback to an employee. The person seems to take in the message quite well—maybe by appreciating the feedback. But before leaving your office, she uses dismissive body language (e.g., scoffing or eye-rolling) or slams the door on her way out.
Passive-aggressive communicators are the most common, and their intentions are unclear. Their body language doesn't correlate with how they feel, so they build up resentment that's expressed subtly or indirectly.
Some red flags of passive-aggressive communicators include:
Giving colleagues the silent treatment
Talking behind people's backs; rumour-mongering
Sabotaging productivity efforts, such as making intentional mistakes or delaying to finish of delegated tasks
Mocking others with sarcasm
Using dismissive language
Showing smiling faces, but their actions suggest annoyance
Passive aggressiveness can poison the workplace if left unchecked. Because such communicators don't openly convey their real feelings, colleagues they interact with may not understand why they are getting the silent treatment or their requests being dismissed. This may hinder teamwork and affect productivity.
Examples of phrases in passive-aggressive communication include:
So how do you deal with this type of communicator in the workplace?
How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Communicators
Passive-aggressive people mask their dissatisfaction with indirect aggressive actions. It's best to confront them directly rather than through email. This ensures you convey your message more clearly.
If an employee claims he's fine when his actions suggest otherwise, don't accept their initial response at face value. Instead, dig deeper to find out why they are offended. Ask questions that reveal the root cause and allow the individual to explain themselves.
Assume an employee responds passive-aggressively to a workplace decision—maybe not being considered for promotion. Ask the person directly whether their behaviours stem from this. Then, tell the person you want to understand their feelings and help them to handle the situation better. If they are discontent with promotion decisions, for example, you can help them improve a skill that puts them in a better position to be promoted next time.
Even if passive-aggressive behaviour is highly frustrating or angering, showing empathy and encouragement is best. You may be tempted to 'put the person in their place but you shouldn't. Lowering your action to their level may skyrocket tension and raise anxiety.
If you feel deeply angered by the passive-aggressive communicator, don't respond in that emotional state. Wait until you're calm or in a better mood. Doing so prevents miscommunication or lashing out.
4. Assertive Communication Style
This is arguably the most effective way to exchange information in the workplace. Unlike aggressive communication, where blame games and finger-pointing are commonplace, assertive communication is direct, honest, and respects everyone's feelings.
Assertive communicators might say, "I feel disrespected" instead of "You're disrespectful." This communication style shifts the focus from accusations to the subject matter, which builds trust and promotes meaningful conversations in the workplace.
Assertive communicators are empathetic. They listen to others to understand where they are coming from while simultaneously defending their own needs, feelings, and thoughts. People often confuse assertiveness for aggressiveness. Here's how they are different:
Assertive communicators use active listening to understand the perspectives of others.
Assertive people aim for a win-win situation for both sides—their empathy allows the other party to feel heard and reciprocate active listening.
They talk directly and clearly, but not harshly or contemptuously
How to Become an Assertive Communicator
Assertive communication is the best way to promote respectful and stronger interpersonal relationships in the workplace. The key to becoming an assertive communicator is considering other people's viewpoints before conveying your message. Empathy signifies emotional intelligence. Other things to remember to sharpen your assertive communication skills include:
Learn to stand for what you believe
Maintain eye contact and upright body posture when communicating
Communicate your feelings, thoughts, and ideas confidently
Use "I" statements to take ownership and prevent attacking the other party— for example, "I respect your rights, but I'm also entitled to express myself respectfully."
Become an Effective Communicator
You've learnt the four communication styles in the workplace. Apply that knowledge accordingly to foster productive conversations and bolster interpersonal skills. Remember, most people don't use one communication style when interacting in the workplace; each type might work better occasionally. But assertive communication is what you should strive for in most situations.