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The 5 communication styles and how to use them effectively

Understanding the different communication styles of our team members builds trust, improves interpersonal skills, and enables efficient and effective decision making. Read on to learn about the five communication styles (assertive, aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, and manipulative) and how to utilize them to improve communication across your team.

The importance of communication for remote teams

Any team needs to be able to communicate effectively in order to be successful. While communication happens naturally when you share a physical space with your coworkers, such as running into them in the lunchroom and asking about one another’s weekends, communicating with remote team members needs to be intentional. Otherwise, it won’t happen.

Your remote team needs to engage with each other on a regular basis in order to build trust and to get to know one another, and that includes understanding each others’ communication styles and preferences.

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Everyone communicates differently, and there can be a lot of misunderstandings and miscommunications if team members don’t understand each others’ varying communication styles. As the manager of a remote team, it’s up to you to understand how the individuals that make up your team prefer to communicate so that you can help them improve their communication habits and facilitate a work environment that benefits everyone.

The 5 communication styles

Unlike other communication preferences (DiSC, Enneagram, etc.,) the 5 communication styles are not all created equal. Some communication styles are more effective than others. 

The 5 types of communication styles are:

  1. Assertive communication
  2. Aggressive communication
  3. Passive communication
  4. Passive-aggressive communication
  5. Manipulative communication

Assertive communication

The assertive communication style is clear, upfront, and direct without being pushy, disrespectful, or rude. Assertive communication comes from a place of confidence. Someone who uses this style of communication expresses their wants and needs clearly while at the same time actively listening to those around them. It’s this balance that enables assertive communicators to achieve consensus and compromise. 

People who use assertive communication don’t allow emotions to cloud their judgment or influence their communication style. They are optimistic, positive, calm, measured, and solution-oriented. They will hear everyone out and work with them—but not at the expense of their own wants, ideas, or values. 

The use of “I” statements is a key piece of assertive communication, such as, “I feel you could have been more polite to our client,” rather than, “You are acting like an unprofessional child.” Assertive communicators are also less likely to use words like couldshould, or maybe. Instead of saying, “Maybe I could take on this part of the project,” they will say, “I will take on this part of the project.” 

Aggressive communication

The aggressive communication style is intimidating, argumentative, and hostile. People who communicate this way are generally only concerned with winning and believe their own opinions to be more worthy or important than those of their team members, managers, or even clients.

If someone tries to interject or assert their own opinion, aggressive communicators will steamroll straight over them, leaving those they work with feeling bullied, ignored, and insignificant. 

Even if the opinion being expressed by someone using the aggressive communication style is ostensibly correct or their idea is a good one, their harsh tone will undermine what they’re trying to get across, and their team members may disagree with them simply because of the way the aggressive person is speaking. 

Aggressive communicators are speaking from a place of confidence, not unlike the assertive communicator. The difference is that assertive communicators actively listen to those around them and care about the feelings of others—aggressive communicators do not. People who use aggressive communication will frequently communicate with their body language as well, such as using aggressive hand gestures, making dismissive faces, and standing too close for comfort.  

Passive communication

The passive communication style is submissive, easy-going, people-pleasing, and self-effacing. People who communicate this way generally let more assertive or aggressive types take the lead, largely because they do not like conflict and will do whatever they can to avoid it. This communication style is often appreciated by more aggressive communicators, as passive communicators will stay out of their way and often take their intimidation and brashness with gentle good humor. 

Unfortunately, this can lead to feelings of resentment. Since passive communicators struggle to clearly communicate their own wants, needs, and opinions, they are often overlooked.

Although passive communication is sometimes the only option if you’re dealing with a temperamental or domineering client, constantly letting people have their way at the expense of what you really want does not make for effective communication and can result in misunderstandings and employee burnout. 

Passive-aggressive communication

This communication style combines elements from the passive and aggressive types of communication styles. On the surface, people who use this style of communication seem passive and easy-going. But deep down, they are angry and frustrated, and this anger will manifest itself in sarcasm, gossip, rumor-spreading, and patronizing or condescending language. 

Passive-aggressive communicators will not outright say they disagree with or don’t like something; they will instead operate in the shadows. Unfortunately, their actions have the same toxic effects that aggressive communication does, if not worse. Their resentment is contagious—they will sow seeds of doubt and spread their dissatisfaction throughout the entire team, and if they are discovered, it will result in no one wanting to work with them. 

Manipulative communication

The manipulative communication style is hard to pinpoint at first, as those who employ this style use deception and cunning to influence outcomes. Manipulative communicators won’t say what they really mean or how they really feel; their real goals are often hidden. They will muddy the waters so that their true intentions aren’t known until their goals are achieved—and perhaps not even then. 

Manipulative communicators know what they want and how to get it, much like assertive communicators, but they try to achieve their goals by tricking people as opposed to speaking to them directly and honestly.

If team members realize they have been bamboozled, they will understandably become angry and will very likely prefer not to work with their manipulative team member again. For this reason, this communication style is not effective in the long term.

What’s the most effective communication style?

The assertive communication style is widely considered to be the most effective. This style is direct and straightforward without being domineering. Assertive communicators know how to get what they want, but not at the expense of others on their team. They don’t press their case by steamrolling over people; in addition to being assertive, they are also kind, thoughtful, and active listeners. 

Their desire to achieve their goals doesn’t come from a place of insecurity; assertive communicators have high self-esteem. They don’t need to prove themselves or retaliate against someone for a perceived slight; they simply want to find the best solution that works for everyone. The assertive style is most effective because team members will feel accepted, not intimidated, and free to express their ideas openly. 

The assertive communication style is key to being a successful manager and leader. Assertive managers foster a work environment that’s built on trust and open communication, and team members will be inspired by their confidence, enthusiasm, and authenticity. It’s these qualities that make a manager a transformational leader as opposed to a transactional leader. 

While assertive communication comes naturally to some, anyone can learn to communicate assertively. If confidence isn’t your strong suit, fake it. Confident people aren’t always right, and they don’t always have the perfect solution; they just don’t let one bad idea or failure define them. Your ideas and opinions have value, so have faith in them. Instead of saying, “I could do that,” say, “I will do that.” 

Be careful not to overcompensate and become aggressive with your communication. A hallmark of assertive communication is your ability to listen to those around you. Be positive and considerate of other people’s points of view, and offer solutions instead of complaints or sarcasm. If you don’t like someone’s idea, find something positive to say about it and point out the idea’s value. 

Be clear, straightforward, and solution-oriented while being considerate of other people’s opinions and communication styles.

How to communicate with other types of communication styles

How to communicate with an assertive style

Assertive communicators are the easiest style to communicate with, as they are clear with their communication and will give you the space to express yourself as well. Take them at face value and be clear with them in return. 

Avoid passive or wishy-washy communication. Assertive communicators don’t need anything sugarcoated, and they want to find the best solution. When meeting with them, ask questions and let them speak, and don’t hesitate to offer your own solutions as well as any constructive criticism. Expect a thoughtful, respectful conversation and exchange of ideas that culminates with a solution for moving forward. 

How to communicate with an aggressive style

Aggressive communicators won’t make things easy for you but engaging with them remotely via Zoom or whatever communication platform you use means they will not be able to use their body language to intimidate you or the other members of your team. 

Note when you believe someone is communicating aggressively and do your best not to return that aggressive communication. Be patient and calm, but be sure to still express your own opinions so that you don’t fall into the passive communication style either.

As their manager, offer constructive criticism and introduce them to the various communication styles. Help them to understand that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar—it’s not that their ideas are bad, it’s the way they deliver their ideas that’s off-putting. Encourage them to listen to their team members and wait for their chance to speak. 

How to communicate with a passive style

Passive communicators are often pleasant to communicate with as their priorities are being kind and avoiding conflict. Be gentle, enthusiastic, and encouraging, and give them plenty of space to speak. If they struggle with group Zoom meetings, engage them in one-on-one meetings and directly ask for their opinions. Keep any and all constructive criticism solution-oriented and positive. 

Managers or fellow team members who use assertive communication can help passive communicators come out of their shells by providing them with a safe space to express their ideas and insights. Just because people who use passive communication are quiet or self-effacing doesn’t mean they have nothing to say or their opinions aren’t valuable. Ask their opinion and be tactful—don’t outright dismiss their ideas, as this will cause them to shut down. 

How to communicate with a passive-aggressive style

This style of communication has no place in a work setting, as it can severely undercut team morale. As a manager, if someone on your team often communicates passive-aggressively, it’s important to employ assertive communication during a one-on-one to get to the root of their dissatisfaction. 

Encourage them to do some soul-searching to determine where their bitterness and frustration are coming from. Do they not feel heard? Are they unhappy with an aspect of the workplace? Is there an idea they have that you should take another look at? 

Do not use passive-aggressive communication in return, however tempting it may be. Be direct, highlight their contributions, and hold them accountable for their actions—but do not patronize or demean them. What are they really trying to say? Once you know, rephrase their opinion in the assertive communication style and lead by example. Show them there is a better way to communicate. 

How to communicate with a manipulative style

The manipulative style will play with and appeal to your emotions, so keep your emotions out of your interactions. Luckily, this is a bit easier to do when communicating remotely, as a manipulator will be less able to gauge your emotional reactions. If they subtly try to steer the conversation in the direction they want, politely stand firm. If you don’t take their emotional bait, eventually, they will realize that their communication style is ineffectual, and they will try another approach.

As with the aggressive and passive-aggressive styles, guide manipulators toward the assertive communication style. Rephrase what they’re trying to say to demonstrate how you would prefer them to communicate. How would it sound if they stated their opinion or idea directly and assertively?

Shefali is a content- and engagement-focused marketer who loves talking to people and telling stories. She is an avid climber, hiker, and traveler, and thinks the Oxford comma is the most important punctuation mark

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