Knowing how to effectively communicate with your team is critical. Communication is a key component of everything we do at work. Getting our own work done, collaborating with team members, delegating work to teammates, and sharing progress reports all depend on effective communication.
That’s where the four communication styles come in. The four communication styles categorize how people communicate. They are a common concept all over the web, and many people believe that understanding your communication style can help you figure out how to effectively collaborate with team members.
The problem is, if you only focus on someone’s communication style, you run the risk of missing the big picture. Maybe a teammate is displaying an aggressive or passive communication style—but why are they doing that? If they seem like an aggressive communicator, where is that aggression coming from? If they seem to be making passive-aggressive comments, what led them to feel like they couldn’t communicate more directly? Understanding what influenced someone’s communication style—instead of only focusing on the effect—can help you better support your team members and help them communicate more effectively.Read: 12 tips to effective communication in the workplace
A communication style is a way to describe the different ways people communicate. There are four main communication styles: passive communication, aggressive communication, passive-aggressive communication, and assertive communication. Each communication style can be displayed verbally, nonverbally, or in written forms.
Broadly speaking, there are four different communication styles. Here’s how each communication style is commonly defined, and how these styles can show up at work:
Passive communication style. A person with this communication style doesn’t speak up frequently. Instead, they are happy to go with the flow. Passive communicators usually aren’t confrontational, and they may even come off as submissive. Their nonverbal communication may include things like crossing their arms while avoiding eye contact.
Aggressive communication style. A person with this communication style is very confident in their viewpoint—to the point where they may not listen to their teammate’s opinions. They will likely interject their own ideas frequently into a conversation, and may sometimes use confrontational language like “you’re wrong” or “you don’t get it.” Nonverbally, this person will maintain intense eye contact.
Passive-aggressive communication style. A person with this communication style doesn’t feel comfortable saying what they mean. Their verbal and nonverbal communication may not match—for example, they may say they’re excited, but display contradictory body language like a frown or slumped shoulders.
Assertive communication style. A person with this communication style stands up for themselves. They are the type of communicator who knows how to explain and advocate for what they want. Assertive communicators may use hand gestures while communicating nonverbally, and they likely have calm or happy facial expressions while speaking.
In an ideal workplace, everyone should be using an assertive communication style. Assertive communicators emphasize collaboration and connection. People who feel comfortable assertively communicating are more team-oriented, because the assertive communication style is built on mutual respect. They understand their work priorities and aren’t afraid to voice their needs. Ultimately, assertive communicators feel like they can bring their full selves to work.
Assertive communicators are able to:
Effectively express their feelings when communicating with others
Prioritize collaboration and connection
Ask for feedback in order to continuously improve
Have straightforward and respectful conversations
Advocate for what they need at work
Because of their ability to communicate effectively at work, assertive communicators usually benefit from:
Mutual respect at work
Clear goals and expectations
Improved communication skills
If you’re reading this, you’re likely trying to improve communication with your team members in some way, regardless of whether they’re displaying a passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communication style.
On the surface, communication styles impact how team members express themselves. These styles might influence how a team member shows up in a 1:1 meeting, communicates via email, or interacts with team members. Communication styles are very real—and identifying a team member’s communication style is the first step towards enabling effective communication at work.
Simply identifying a team member’s communication style isn’t enough, though. As you might imagine, some communication styles could create conflict in the workplace—for example, an aggressive communicator might make it hard for other team members to express their opinion.
If a team member is outwardly displaying a negative or difficult style of communication, there is likely an underlying cause—like stress or turmoil at work. When you’re able to identify a team member’s outward communication style, you can then address what’s blocking them from communicating assertively.
Chances are, your team members likely want to be assertive communicators, because assertive communication is the best way to create an honest, open environment. Even on competitive teams like sales or law, assertive communication empowers team members to effectively express their ideas and collaborate with their team members. If team members aren’t communicating in an assertive style, there’s likely some blocker at work that’s keeping them from being their full selves.
As their manager, you can address that. By digging deeper into each teammate’s communication style, you can begin to identify why they might be communicating in an aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive way—and what you can do about it. You can implement processes and support systems to ensure team members feel comfortable being themselves at work. When you unblock the things that might be holding them back, people will be empowered to communicate assertively to advocate for their own needs.
If someone seems like a passive communicator, they may feel uncomfortable or socially anxious at work. For whatever reason, this person doesn’t feel able to express themselves confidently or bring their full selves to work. According to the Mayo Clinic, passive communicators may suffer from increased stress. Those that do are not alone—according to the Anatomy of Work Index, 42% of knowledge workers rated their stress levels as very high last year.
A communication plan is an outline of how and where your team is going to communicate about work. This could include which tools team members should use, when to use live vs. offline communication, and who is responsible for each of the team’s channels. This can help team members who are socially anxious or stressed by removing the guesswork from work communication.
When you share a communication plan, make sure to clarify:
Which channel should be used when
When team members should communicate synchronously (live) vs. asynchronously (in their own time)
The frequency with which updates should be shared
How team members can indicate when they’re offline or in focus mode
The most important part of sharing your communication plan to empower passive communicators is to clarify which tools should be used when. For example, at Asana, we use:
Asana to communicate asynchronously about work, like sharing updates, feedback, or project status reports
Slack for live, synchronous chats and quick questions
Email to communicate with any external stakeholders that aren’t in Asana
Zoom or Google Meet for team meetings and face-to-face conversations with our global team
If someone seems like an aggressive communicator, they may feel like they’re not supported at work. Even if it’s subconscious, this feeling of being attacked can naturally cause a team member to react defensively, which can manifest as increased aggression. According to the Mayo Clinic, team members may use aggressive communication styles to get what they want, but by doing so, they risk undermining team trust.
Your team member might be communicating with an aggressive style because they think it’s the only way to get what they want. The best way to support them—while also guiding them towards a more assertive communication style—is to clarify who is working on what, and what each team member’s responsibilities are on any given project.
To do so, consider creating RACI charts to clarify the various roles each project team member is playing. RACI is an acronym that stands for:
Responsible: This person is directly in charge of the work. They are the go-to person for any questions. In a RACI chart, each task or initiative only has one Responsible.
Accountable: This person is overseeing the work. They are responsible for making sure the work is completed on time. In a RACI chart, each task or initiative only has one Accountable.
Consulted: This person or people sign off on the work before it’s completed. There can be multiple Consulted.
Informed: These people are connected to the work that’s being done, but they don’t need to be included in any of the review loops. They should be kept informed about the progress of the work. There can be multiple Informed.
A RACI chart can give your team member clear insight into who is directly responsible for the role, as well as who is reviewing or providing feedback. Creating a RACI chart can help support an aggressive communicator in two ways:
If they are included in the RACI chart, the chart provides the guardrails of what their role does and doesn’t entail.
If they aren’t included in the RACI chart, they can clearly understand that they aren’t a stakeholder in this work.
If someone seems like a passive-aggressive communicator, they may feel like their opinions wouldn’t be accepted by the group. If direct communication historically didn’t work for them, they may have reverted to passive-aggressive communication. According to the Mayo Clinic, these communicators are uncomfortable being direct about their needs.
Encouraging passive-aggressive communicators to come out of their shell starts at the team level. If you haven’t already, make sure your team members get to know one another outside of the project or task context. This will also help them learn the best ways to collaborate with one another and communicate more effortlessly.
Consider scheduling some recurring team building activities on a weekly or monthly basis. These can be fun activities like trivia, or they can just be a time for your team to get together and chat. In addition to these dedicated meetings, make some time to get to know each other on a regular basis. At Asana, we use icebreakers at the beginning of most meetings to get bonding time on a regular basis. Icebreakers make sure we have a bit of levity and connection in every meeting.Read: 110+ best icebreaker questions for team building
Encourage team members to get to know each other individually, as well. When possible, encourage team members to schedule informal coffee chats or 1:1s with one another—we do them every other week at Asana—so they can bond.
You’ll notice your efforts are working when team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas, disagreeing with one another, and asserting their needs. Once that happens, continue to invest in team building, coaching, and communication best practices to help your team maintain their confident, assertive communication style.