How the Four Communications Styles Impact Work Relationships, The MDC Group

Psychologists identified four communications styles in the 1960s: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. By understanding the four styles, businesspeople can analyze how their team members or applicants communicate and learn to interact with them more effectively. Recognizing individual styles helps leaders understand and handle conflicts and disagreements in the workplace. Understanding how someone communicates and why, can improve how well people exchange ideas and information.

While some people rely primarily on one style, most people straddle more than one of the four. For example, someone might sometimes use passive communication and sometimes be more assertive. Others might be aggressive under some circumstances and passive-aggressive under others. Someone who is usually assertive could suddenly become passive because of events or circumstances.

Passive Communicators Have Difficulty Expressing Themselves

People who communicate passively work well with others. They show respect for others and listen to their ideas, so they are team players. However, they sometimes give in too easily or avoid expressing what they think, because they lack confidence. Because they sometimes keep their thoughts and emotions bottled up inside, they might secretly become resentful.

Typical Behaviors to Look for Include:

  • They take on more responsibilities than others do.
  • They are good listeners.
  • They may have poor posture or avoid eye contact
  • Many are soft-spoken, even apologetic for talking.
  • They give in easily to peer pressure, and have trouble saying no.
  • They might be great at resolving conflict between others.
  • They may appear fidgety if they are having trouble expressing disagreement.

How to Communicate with Passive Communicators

Passive people are often shy and lack confidence, so encourage them. You might consider sometimes having conversations one-on-one rather than in a group setting. If their passiveness has created a problem (like they have bitten off more than they can chew), be direct but not confrontational. Employ the concept of carefrontation, combining confrontation with caring and concern for the individual. Ask for the person’s opinion and give them time to think and answer fully. Encourage them to express themselves and never dismiss their answer or idea. Instead, show appreciation for their effort and highlight any positives. Talk about solutions rather than problems in a situation. Remind them to rely on their team. Provide assertiveness training if that’s possible.

Aggressive Communicators Dominate

Aggressive communicators are the opposite of passive communicators. They like to take charge and concentrate more on getting things done quickly and less on including everyone in decision making. Their instincts are to dominate every conversation, because they usually think they know best. They might talk over others or cut them off before they are finished, and don’t always consider other’s feelings when they speak. While not all aggressive communicators are the same, some tend to take credit for successes but blame others for mistakes or failures. They are great at getting things done but need to learn to let others express themselves and help.

Typical Behaviors to Look for Include:

  • They have a “Get it Done” attitude.
  • They may be critical and demanding.
  • They may frown when others speak or take an aggressive stance
  • They are often poor listener because they want to keep things moving.
  • They may talk more about themselves and their ideas than most people do.
  • They are independent and focus on goals and how to reach them.

How to Communicate with Aggressive Communicators

Working with someone who communicates aggressively can be very challenging. They have ideas and want to express them so start by employing active listening behaviors. Show you are listening by making eye contact, nodding, and using listening body language. Within reason, let them talk until they are finished. It’s sometimes challenging and time-consuming but worth it, so be patient. Once you or someone else starts talking, don’t let them interrupt. Remind them that you gave them their turn and listened to everything they had to say. Remind them they are part of a team, and don’t need to do everything themselves. Provide good listening and assertive communication training.

Passive-Aggressive Communicators Hide Resentment

Passive-aggressive communicators can be difficult to identify at first because they may seem passive. They work well within a group and sometimes assume too many responsibilities like a passive person does. The difference between passive and passive-aggressive communication is that the resentment that builds inside comes out in subtle but destructive ways. For example, they may undermine group efforts to get along by gossiping. They may make comments under their breath but deny any negative feelings if confronted about what they’ve said.

Typical Behaviors to Look for Include:

  • They are cooperative and listen to others when they speak.
  • Facial expression, actions or body language don’t match what they say.
  • They sometimes take on more responsibility than they should.
  • They find acknowledging their emotions difficult.
  • They might mutter under their breath or say something as they leave a room

How to Communicate with Passive Aggressive Communicators.

Passive-aggressive people can be difficult to identify because they keep their hurt feelings to themselves. They seem to fit in to a successful team but, because their actions can damage team morale, addressing their hidden negative feelings effectively is important. Realize that they may feel powerless, lack confidence, and find expressing themselves difficult. Encourage them to express themselves and use active listening, and positive body language, while they do. When you communicate with them, make sure you express your thoughts clearly, so there’s no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. If you notice damaging passive-aggressive communication, talk to them about it openly and honestly but privately. Uncover and address the reason for their hurt feelings. Use these conversations to teach them to use more assertive communication skills.

Assertive Communicators are the Healthiest

Assertive communication is healthiest because it’s transparent, honest, and open. People say what they mean but are willing to listen to others and consider their ideas and thoughts fairly. They balance their needs and opinions with those of others but may miss the clues indicating others are communicating passively or passive-aggressively. Companies that encourage mutual respect, also encourage assertive communication.

Typical Behaviors to Look for Include:

  • They express their desires and needs confidently.
  • They allow and even encourage others to speak.
  • They use “I” statements like I feel frustrated when you interrupt me.
  • They establish personal limits and can say no when they need to.
  • They can maintain good eye contact.
  • They claim their own successes and failures.
  • They ask questions and listen to the answers.

How to Improve and Encourage Assertive Communication

If you are already an assertive person, use your natural confidence to motivate and encourage others. Saying things like, “We need to work together to solve this problem” or “Let’s brainstorm and see what we can come up with” helps people feel included and encouraged to collaborate.

Be straightforward with your opinions and ideas but use words to include others rather than appear authoritative. Listen to everyone on the team, thank them for input, but clearly explain why if you disagree with something said. Once a decision is made, connect the dots, so everyone understands what has gone into the final choice. People learn assertive communication by seeing it in action, but there are also assertive communication seminars and teaching modules.

Why Assertive Communication Works

The assertive communication style is prevalent in business today because it allows teams to work together seamlessly and successfully. Information is clearly presented; people feel valued and heard, and hard feelings and negative energy is minimized. Passive communicators are usually followers, and passive-aggressive people create drama and damaging controversy. Neither group contributes as much as they could to group thinking, planning, and problem solving. Aggressive people can be bosses and get things done but may not be the best leaders because they don’t listen or value others. Assertive communicators may not always understand the other three communications styles, but they say what they mean, listen to what others have to say, and are open to changing their opinion when it’s warranted. Most people employ more than one style, but the more assertive they can be, the more effectively they communicate.

Every company has people with all four communication styles and most people use multiple styles in various situations. By identifying and understanding how people communicate, people share ideas and work together more effectively.

At The MDC Group, they utilize the Predictive Index (PI) system when they’re recruiting, interviewing and managing their daily work life. Predictive Index testing provides companies with detailed information about an individual’s cognitive abilities, personality traits, and behavioral tendencies. The information lets The MDC Group know how they should communicate and manage each team member.

Organizations can use testing and interviews to understand their team members’ communication styles. They can also train everyone to listen to others and value them as people which will encourage open, clear, assertive communication without hurt feelings or repercussions.


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