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Sound familiar?

It was a typical night in the Smith household. No one was talking, and it felt tense.  Mom was in the living room watching TV, dad was on the computer, and John was upstairs in his room. An argument had happened earlier in the evening, and now everyone was being passive-aggressive. Instead of sitting down and discussing the issue, the family decided that silence (and slamming the occasional door) was better.  Or rather, they didn’t exactly “decide” this — it was just what they did.  In fact, if they had to choose, they’d all pick something different because each could see this wasn’t working.  But still, night after night, they just didn’t communicate.

Layla thought she was being assertive with her co-workers. Anytime she wanted something done, she would simply say some variation on, “Hey, get this done now!”  Layla thinks of this as assertive, but in fact, she is acting quite aggressive.  To boot, she doesn’t seem to have any idea that her communication is received negatively, in spite of the fact that she’s run into that feedback any number of times across her short few years since exiting graduate school and entering the workforce.  Her superiors, and now, even her co-workers are getting sick and tired of this behavior and feel they may be at a breaking point.   Last week when Layla failed to take into account the emotional duress one of her direct reports was under because of having abruptly lost her brother in a car accident last month, she nearly caused the whole department to topple over — the distressed employee was incredibly reactive to Layla’s typical approach.  To make matters worse, the last time this issue surrounding communication style was mentioned to her in a review, Layla doubled-down — her reaction read as even  more aggressive, and she stormed out of the meeting.  At least one co-worker is considering leaving, and others are talking.

Mason lets things slide at home and work. Even if he gets frustrated, he would never tell anyone. Instead of asking for what he needs, he just stays quiet and gets on with his work.  He was taught this posture growing up both by the explicit commentary of his father and what he picked up on his own during the few times his father confronted his mother — it never went well.  His father had called this “humility,” but even he didn’t seem convinced at the time that it wasn’t really something more akin to being a doormat.  Now as an adult, things in his marriage have been more difficult because his wife dislikes his passive demeanor, although she’d listed “easy-going” as one of his best qualities in the early days of his courtship. Mason doesn’t feel comfortable being assertive with his wife — she never reacts well — and doesn’t even know where to begin at work. 

What does it mean to communicate?  

We devote most of our day to exchanging important information with others. By exchanging verbal and non-verbal information, a plethora of information can be exchanged, relationships can be formed or broken, and we can make our way through the world productively or not so productively.

Verbal communication can be understood through oral and written words.

Non-verbal communication comes in many forms: body language, tone of voice, style of clothing, hand gestures, rate of speech, etc.

When we’re communicating openly and honestly, our verbal and non-verbal communication are congruent — what is shown on the outside is what is felt on the inside. If your friend says she’s not mad at you while giving you a big hug, you would assume that they are being truthful. One the other hand, what if her arms were crossed, she didn’t give you a hug, and her tone of voice was harsh?   Verbally, your friend is communicating that she isn’t mad, but her non-verbal communication tells the opposite story. 

And it’s not always that clear.

Certain people communicate with incongruence as a matter of course.  What they say on the outside rarely reflects what’s going on on the inside, so their posture or tone of voice might read “kind” and “friendly” but the actual words they use or their seeming intent may read as “harsh” or “biting.”  What’s worse, some people communicate incongruently deliberately, saying one thing but clearly implying other things.  Such individuals, though rare, are typically pathological and manipulative in a manner that is destructive for others (and ultimately, for themselves).

4 Basic Styles of Communication

Research on the subject of communication typically denotes four basic approaches.  In considering which you most identify with, it is important to remember that some of us may be more prone to certain communication styles than others, largely as a result of both in-born genetic wiring and disposition, as well as the influence of our families of origin and formative childhood and adolescent experiences.  It’s equally important to remember that sometimes we’re more prone to certain styles of communication in certain settings — for example, we may be passive and deferential in our work lives but much more active and engaged at home.  And not just external environmental cues impact us, but also the object or purpose or type of activity we’re involved with.  For example, persons who are more prone to leadership and decision-making in general may find that they like to be less in-charge during sex or romantic endeavors.

At any rate, here’s a brief overview to the 4 Basic Styles of Communication.

Passive: This communication style centers around the idea that to achieve what one wants, one must please others. Individuals with passive communication styles do not voice their opinions as often as they would like to, and this may grow out of our develop into the belief that others’ opinions are more important, valid, or informed than their own. Consequently, passive individuals put themselves down and act submissively to peers.  Examples:

  • Wanting to go to the park, but not letting your friends know
  • Overly apologetic
  • Lack of eye contact with others

Passive-Aggressive: In public the person may appear passive, but inside the person feels resentment/anger/irritation towards others.  A funny way of referrring to this phenomenon when you experience it from others is to say, “It felt like you were peeing on my leg while telling me it was raining.” 🤣🤣  Of course, it isn’t so fun to experience.  Communicating in a passive-aggressive manner usually comes off sarcastic and can hurt others’ feelings, and less obvious forms are less sarcastic but all the more hurtful once discovered (i.e., once the other party discovers that the passive-aggressive person is intending to be aggressive).   Examples:

  • “Oh okay I guess we can go to the movies — I guess I’ll just have to go to the mall by myself.”
  • “Don’t worry about what I want. Not one cares most of the time, so why should now be different?”
  • Slamming doors or using a raised vocal tone even though a person says that they are not irritated

Assertive: This is the optimal communication style, and yet, most of us struggle to do it across the board.  Assertive communication focuses on letting people know what our needs are, but with a sense of stability and “okay-ness” if needs aren’t fulfilled, or at minimum, a willingness to respond proportionately to the offense.  An assertive communicator uses “I feel” statements, directly asks for what is needed, and apologizes when appropriate. When we are assertive, peers feel more comfortable with us and generally find us to be approachable.  Examples:

  • “Sometimes when you walk away from me I feel sad inside because I feel like you don’t want to hear my opinion.”
  • “I’m so sorry that I did not give you a call after work. I know I said I would, but I got distracted with picking up dinner.”
  • “Thank you so much for telling me that my work is good! It feels so good to know that you appreciate what I am turning in.”

Aggressive: An aggressive communicator generally wants to win, or approaches conversations as if that was the case. They communicate as if they do not care about others’ emotions, and can become very hostile.  If an aggressive communicator feels like they did not win an argument or generate a sufficient response, their aggression may escalate in an effort to produce a different outcome. During arguments, an aggressive communicator will use many tactics to make the other person submit. Behind the harsh verbal, and non-verbal, cues is the idea “it’s my way of the highway.”  To be clear, it isn’t aggressive when a boss or authority figure who by virtue of their role indicates to you that things must go according to a certain path in order to be considered successful in a work or other organizational setting, but that’s not the same as being demanding, controlling, and generally insistent that things go that way perfectly or unilaterally.  Examples:

  • “Why would you do it that way! Can’t you see that my way is better? Stop being so stupid!”
  • Name-calling
  • “If you don’t do that I’m going to get you fired so fast you won’t know what hit you!”

Bringing it Home

Most of us vacillate between a variety of communication styles in different settings and situations, so it’s confusing to know when, where, and what with any level of precision or clarity, at least not across the board.  Here are a few ground rules to bear in mind that apply most of the time.

  • Use your words.   Remember to use “I feel______” and “I think ______” statements when communicating your needs, wants, and desires.  By saying “When you called me a name, I felt ________,” or, “When you hurt my feelings, I thought to myself that __________.”  If any thing can shore up communication between two persons, it’s clarity about where you end and the other person begins.  It can confuse and blur that boundary when we are always talking as though the other person is in charge of our reactions (e.g., statements like, “You make me feel like I’m ______________” — this may feel emotionally accurate, but it cedes all control and authority for how you feel to the other).


  • Break.  Breathe. Sometimes it is good to take a break from communication.  The difficulty is that when someone suggests that instead of letting things escalate, you try to separate for about 30 minutes or an hour, most of us are already too escalated to execute.  So, start sooner.  Analyze your relational patterns and try to head off things long before they might move in the direction of escalation, if possible.  A good metaphor to use here is to employ the same kind of approach you might with mindful eating.  That is, overeating is curbed by discontinuing eating the first time it registers in our minds that our stomach is generally feeling full and satiated.  Inevitably and especially with certain foods, if we do not stop at that first bell-ring, we keep eating until we are over-full.  Similarly, notice what the trends are when things **begin** to escalate, not when they already have again — it’s too late! 


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