There are four main communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive communication. Learn what they are, the signs of each, and how to support your team no matter their communication style.
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. Which is why it’s so important to understand why people communicate the way they do.
That’s where the four communication styles come in. The four communication styles categorize how people communicate. Understanding your communication style can help you figure out how you might differ from colleagues, which you can use to more 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. 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 of the different styles can be expressed verbally, nonverbally, or in written forms.How to motivate employees in a fast-changing world
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:
A passive communicator doesn’t speak up frequently. Instead, they are happy to go with the flow and support the needs of others. 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.
Passive communicators 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.
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
A person with this communication style is very confident in their point of view—to the point where they may not listen to their teammate’s opinions. They often interject their own ideas into a conversation, and may sometimes use confrontational language like “you’re wrong” or “you don’t get it.” Nonverbally, this person will maintain eye contact.
Aggressive communicators may feel unsupported at work. This 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 it’s often at the expense of others. In doing so, they risk undermining team trust, miscommunications, and coming off as patronizing.
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 effective 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.
Accountable: This person is overseeing the work.
Consulted: This person or people sign off on the work before it’s completed.
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.
A RACI chart can give your team member clear insight into who is directly responsible for the role, decision making, and giving feedback for your projects. Creating a RACI chart supports 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 understand that they aren’t a stakeholder in this work.
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.
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.
Passive-aggressive communicators may feel like their opinions wouldn’t be accepted by the group. Often, they reverted to passive-aggressive communication because direct communication historically didn’t work for them. According to the Mayo Clinic, these types of people are uncomfortable being direct about their needs.How to motivate employees in a fast-changing world
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 build interpersonal relationships and get to know one another outside of the project or task context.
Consider scheduling 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 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 form healthy relationships.
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, the rights of others, or their own well-being. Assertive communicators may use hand gestures while communicating nonverbally, and they likely have calm or happy facial expressions while speaking.Read: 6 work styles and how to help team members discover theirs
Assertive communicators are highly functional communicators. They share how they feel in a productive way. Because they are already effective communicators, your responsibility as a manager is to let go of some control, step back, and allow them to lead. Empowering assertive communicators will help them to feel even more confident in their voice, and might help them to step in leadership or high-impact roles.
Assertive communicators don’t need as much support as other communication styles, but you can still help them express themselves even more clearly by using active listening. Active listening is a conscious and engaged way of listening, where your sole focus is to understand what the other person is saying. This involves reserving judgment, paraphrasing responses, and asking specific, open-ended questions that encourage conversation.Read: Listening to understand: How to practice active listening (with examples)
In an ideal workplace, everyone should use 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, aren’t afraid to voice their needs, and routinely follow-up on work and colleagues. Ultimately, assertive communicators feel like they can bring their full selves to work.
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
Simply identifying a team member’s communication style isn’t enough. Some communication styles create conflict in the workplace—for example, an aggressive communicator might make it hard for other team members to express their opinion or use their style to their own advantage. But chances are, your team members want to be assertive communicators. Even on competitive teams like sales or law, assertive communication empowers team members to effectively express their ideas and collaborate with others.Read: The best conflict resolution strategy you’re not using
If a team member is outwardly displaying a negative or manipulative communication style, 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.
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.
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.
All communication styles can benefit from clear, concise communication about work projects and tasks. With Asana, you can reduce miscommunications and potential conflict, coordinate work across individuals and teams, and ensure that everyone is on the same page.How to motivate employees in a fast-changing world